KM Definitions or Metaphors?

February 15, 2010

As a writer and consultant, my work straddles the realms of organizational knowledge and learning (which often seem mutually exclusive) I know “Knowledge Management” is a terrible term (if not outright curse) for what most of us are trying to accomplish.

That said, I’ve also seen how the fallacy inherent in that phrase a) filters out the proponents of either computer engineering or social engineering, which are equally ineffective; and b) forces sincere facilitators into an endless exercise of iterative definitions, which turns out to be very worthwhile. The point isn’t that the definitions gradually get better, but that the process keeps a very useful conversation going.

Ray Sims compiled more than 60 KM definitions—and much better than just one definition of knowledge management that fails to please anybody. And no matter how precise someone tries to be, differences in expectations, experience, context, culture and language will always cause people to hear things differently.

With multiple definitions clarity and agreement cannot be assumed. Meaning must be negotiated and confirmed. Even if it’s only a temporary agreement or working definition for the task at hand, that represents a position triangulated from the multiple points of view of all participants. You’ll have a much better commitment to success if consensus was earned rather than enforced.

If the definitions are mutually exclusive, that’s even better. Paradox and contradiction drive us think deeper, and ultimately reframe the problem or question, like Zen koans. (As such, I guess I subscribe to the Rinzai school of KM, wherein the answer transcends the question and once we finally solve the puzzle, the term itself will vanish.)

Personally, I’ve always been most interested in how knowledge management can facilitate personal and organizational learning as a way to improve understanding, decisions, actions and outcomes. Although I’ve never seen it defined that way, I think that’s the good intention behind most of our efforts. Too quickly, however, expedience redefines KM as analysis and explication, economics reduces KM to technology, rhetoric deludes us to believe that rules can change cultures and behaviors, and we forget that the quest to master knowledge is as old as consciousness itself.

On the other hand, I’ve also come to believe that a good metaphor is worth a thousand definitions. Ambiguity and abstraction are among the most useful gadgets in the KM and organizational learning toolkits. You are forced to adapt and apply, rather than simply accept and adopt.

In fact, I agree with Tihamér von Ghyczy that a bad metaphor, like a bad definition, can sometimes be even more effective than a good one.

Explicit definitions are low-bandwidth and put people in a passive mode. Metaphors, because they “unpack” so much imagery, operate in a much higher bandwidth. Ambiguity can simulate or even demand an active mode of engagement and learning.

That’s why I often think that those interested in conveying knowledge across distances should not be writing lines of code, but lines of poetry.

Up next, my current favorite metaphor…

Meanwhile, new on my blog, Reflexions: “Psychological Safety and Team Learning”

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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