KSS2: Organising principles

January 12, 2010

201001050717.jpg Just before Christmas I started off this thread by summarising the reasons that people have given me over the years in respect of the need to share knowledge across silos within organisations, both in Industry and Government. I also identified two common mistakes in finding solutions. These were (i) assuming that the problem was one of information sharing and (ii) attempting to define and prescribe ideal behaviour. The latter point linked to the all to common question: How do I create a knowledge sharing culture? Unfortunately it’s the wrong question; cultures evolve over time, there is no divine watchmaker who can design or create a culture.

In this second part I want to focus on four core guiding principles that will underlie any successful approach to the problem, and will then move on, in at least one possibly more, posts to summarise some methods and techniques that can be used. The picture by the way is part of the solution, but I’ll come to that later. Some of these correspond with my seven principles of knowledge management so should be familiar to regular readers.

201001051201.jpgSocial Obligation

Over the last year I have heard some inspiring stories about the way that communities have come together to rebuild after bush fires. I have also seen examples of people from radically different backgrounds and interests coming together to stack sandbags to prevent an isolated house being damaged by flood water. In different organisations I have seen experienced people spend considerable time with school students on work placement with no obvious need or advantage. OK there will always be exceptions, but a direct personal contact or request generally results if some type of gifting behaviour.

As I have said before, in the context of real need few people will refuse to share their knowledge, but most people will refuse to codify what they know in an anticipation of some unarticulated need. There are various reasons for this which range from the political to the practical. Think about the difference between being asked a specific question in context and a more generic request to write down what you know. The more we have context the more we know, what aspects of what we know are relevant and the level of abstraction that the recipient needs. We can also qualify use of the material. I’ve often said for someone new asking for help OK do this and if this happens phone me up. With other people where I know more about them, or the context is simple I may just reference a paper or reference a concept or principle. This is natural and easy. Covering off all possible options in advance of the question is simply not possible at acceptable cost, if at all. Social context creates social obligation.

This means that solutions in this area must focus on linking and connecting people so that contextual questions can be asked directly or indirectly at the point of need or immediate anticipation of need. The good news is that gifting is pretty much hard wired into humans so we can build on that.


Individual Context

We only know what we know when we need to know it. One of my original three principles of KM before I expanded to seven. Human beings simply don’t have a list all command we require contextual (that word again and not for the last time) stimulation. Everyone has had the experience of suddenly remembering something form years back that now turns out to be highly relevant. We sleep on things as a means of recall. Conversation stimulates idea creation. Its one of the reasons I always record presentations, the act of explaining something to an audience, especially if questioned, is often a process of gaining new insight or understanding.

There is some overlap here with the general points made under social obligation above, all things are connected! However its important to realise that independently of social obligations, we need direct stimulation. I have a couple of overdue papers on the go at the moment (a more or less perpetual state of affairs. I know have half a dozen books open on the work space around me, some old papers of mine and a few artifacts from projects. All of those are stimulating me not just to recall what I know, but to create new knowledge.

Adaption & exaptation

Probably one of the most effective mechanisms for knowledge transfer which has emerged in human history was (and is) the apprentice scheme. Highly ritualised in medieval times with the apprentice walking the boards once they had reached a certain level of competence to become Journeymen. Then, for some the execution of the master work to become one of the company masters. Dress changed at each stage as did obligation. The educational model was also community based. Journeymen also educated apprentices and were often better able to do so than the masters. While in the early stages of knowledge transfer there was a degree of rote learning, increasingly the apprentice learnt by practice and by tolerated failure. They did not copy the master, they adapted with variance and as such the body of knowledge progressed, it was not transferred as a static entity – something all too common in most KM programmes – but as a living, breathing and changing practice.

Knowledge is a flow, an evolving capability rather than a static thing. By recognising this dynamic quality we also enable exaptation which I have discussed before. Gould distinguishes between adaptation which is a gradual process drive by natural selection and exaptation, a sudden functional change of a biological trait or technology in the absence of selective pressure. For those interested its the difference between climbing a peak of a fitness landscape and the collapse of the distance between peaks. Human language is generally held to have resulted from exaptation not adaptation. Arthur in his brilliant book has pointed to the way this happens in technology through modularisation. Kauffman sees exaptation as a hugely creative force.

By its very nature exaptation does not arise from structured and ordered process, it requires that landscape to collapse, for serendipitous events, for novelty to emerge in unexpected ways. All of this means that the way in which things link and connect between silos needs to reflect the messy accidental nature of evolution. Managing for exaptation requires us to create a messy (but not chaotic) environment, to get the modularization (scale) right for networked interactions. The good news is that its easy to do, the bad news is that it means unlearning a lot of process type approaches and abandoning the dangerous cult of sick stigma with its belted high priests.

201001122119.jpg Natural Limits

I make no apology for a simple reference here. There are natural limits on group size and social interaction that we need to respect in building any initiative. I posted on this some time ago and have nothing major to add to what I said then.

to be continued ….

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