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How does an organization know what it knows?

February 17, 2010

How does an organization know what it knows? That question drives a lot of interest in knowledge management. It drives a lot of spending on consultants and technology. It drives a lot of effort trying to extract the "knowledge trapped inside people's heads" with explicated and documented content in searchable repositories.

This has bothered me for a long time. I'm starting to think: "Only the whole organization can know what it knows!"

I think the metaphor here is watershed.

That is, our collective capacity depends on distributed knowing as well as distributed learning. We can only collectively know the maximum if we separately take responsibility for knowing things no one else knows—but being accessible to apply that expertise for them when someone else needs it. If we start spending too much time trying to extract and explicate that knowledge from disparate individuals and centralize it into repositories, new learning will run off the bare soil and flood the lowlands with information overload, no?

Around the world, indigenous communities take various strategies for stewarding the accumulated learning, skills, and practices that inform day-to-day decisions and long-term worldviews on practical and fundamental aspects of a group's practices. Often you see a balance between maintaining the general knowledge that all members of the community should know together and maintaining the specialty knowledge that is important to everyone's survival but too esoteric except for a subject matter expert and his or her apprentice. (See "Digitizing or Indigenizing Knowledge?")

Comparing "traditional knowledge" (as in indigenous communities) to "traditional science" (as in scientific method) offers a useful metaphor—and perhaps a better model—for the problem of constructing KM solutions, which are typically approached as an extension of "scientific management" even though organizational interventions respond better to anthropological approaches rather than technological ones.

"Indigenous knowledge" is a better term, emphasizing the situation of knowledge: its inextricable link to place and context. This situated knowledge is almost always framed by social responsibility and long-term sustainability. And the focus on relationships rather than reification is more in line with complexity and systems theories than taxonomical or hierarchical approaches of traditional science.

Recognizing the value of indigenous knowledge has resulted in efforts to deploy researchers into the field to document local traditional knowledge, catalogue it and archive it in international repositories for the purposes of both preserving this knowledge from loss and helping it to be transferred from one location to another.

However, Arun Agrawal in "Dismantling the Divide Between Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge," Agrawal warns that disconnecting knowledge from its source, in terms of people and places, will remove from that knowledge the very context which infuses it with life. Because indigenous knowledge is continuously generated and renewed in the living practices of people, archiving in isolation from practice removes its ongoing relevance. What he calls "ex situ conservation of knowledge" replaces the validation of ongoing practice with "scientific" methods and measurements. Allowing outside researchers to decide what knowledge to document, how it should be documented and how it will be categorized and stored, subjects that knowledge to the wrong evaluations.

Isn't this exactly the same danger faced by any organization looking to collect and disseminate best practices? It's myopic to think indigenous knowledge exists only in "primitive" communities. Fire stations, assembly lines, and executive suites all accrete intuitions, superstitions and stories that go uncatalogued by scientific research. Any group of workers in the field or office acquire rituals, beliefs, traditions that embody lessons learned and are justified as "the way we do things around here" in contrast to the sterile, mechanical and irrelevant view of practice as wholly predictable and manageable.

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