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Knowledge management - the basic ingredients

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BAWA was the venue for this highly interactive event looking at what knowledge management is and is not, and some guidance on how to avoid the deadliest sins of knowledge management.

Judy Payne and Martin Fisher are both founder members of the newly formed APM Knowledge SIG, of which Judy is the chair. They led the audience through a journey of exploration where members were encouraged to share their own experiences which led to a lot of debate and discussion. Martin started the evening with a few key messages about what knowledge is and is not. It is not the same as information, it can never be captured completely, knowledge management has to connect people to people, not just to information, the environment is more important than the techniques you use, and you need to be clear about your objectives.

In small groups, members were invited to discuss and share experiences of knowledge management (KM) techniques, tools and methods. These were shared in plenary and Martin captured ideas on a flip chart for use later. The Eleven deadliest sins of KM, from an article published in 1998, were outlined, together with an additional twelfth sin, and the point made that a lot of the errors described are still made today. There was not time to deal with all of the ‘sins’, but Judy and Martin picked out two:

Deadly Sin No. 1. Not developing a working definition of knowledge.
A definition of KM depends on a definition of knowledge and what it is. Judy warned members that APM BoK 6, does not help as it is a bit muddled and needs reworking! There are two types of knowledge: explicit and tacit.

Explicit knowledge can easily be captured, written down and shared, and becomes information. Tacit knowledge is personal, and we may not know that we know it. It is not visible, it is very hard to share and can involve personal skills and experience. Mentoring, apprenticeships, creative facilitation can be useful, but all depend on long term relationships and trust. Tacit knowledge is very difficult to copy, and so for an organisation can represent valuable competitive advantage. If an organisation does not have a working definition for knowledge and KM, then there is a real risk of the true value of tacit knowledge not being recognised and reverting to focus solely on information management.

Judy quoted Harold Jarche to dispel an old wives tale: data does not create information; information does not create knowledge and knowledge does not create wisdom. People use their knowledge to make sense of data and information. People create information that represents their knowledge, which can then be more widely shared.

A working definition of knowledge is by Davenport and Prusak, (1998): knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It originates and is applied in the minds of knowers. In organisations, it often becomes embedded not only in documents or repositories but also in organisational routines, processes, practices and norms.

Judy pointed out that knowledge is not only personal to an individual; it can also apply to groups, where tacit knowledge can be seen through a shared understanding, and explicit knowledge thorough things a group can express. In Western society in particular, more value is often placed on individual explicit knowledge through the educational exam system and performance management systems in the work place. Therefore organisations have to work hard if they are to attempt to leverage tacit knowledge. This sparked a lot of discussion and debate, and highlighted the power of storytelling to learn lessons and build group knowledge.

Deadly Sin No. 2: Emphasising knowledge stock to the detriment of knowledge flow.
Martin explained that if as is too often the case that an organisation treats knowledge as information, then it is likely to treat it as something that can be captured and stored, ie. stock, but this is not managing the more valuable tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge can only be used and valued if it is exchanged, or flows, between people, and the exchange enables the recipient to understand and take positive action based on what they have learned. It is the difference between teaching (or telling) and learning (understanding).

Martin illustrated knowledge flows between the individual, organisation and project, as well as between organisations and a professional body. So, what can you do to help knowledge flows to reap the organisational rewards?

Ultimately it is about building the right organisational environment and culture. Allowing people time to network and share, trusting people to do that, treating people fairly and rewarding collaborative behaviours. Hiring smart people and letting them talk to each other. Spending time building shared language and understanding. Building strong relationships and social networks. If you look at the new technology businesses that started up on the West coast of America, this is exactly what they set out to do and one of the reasons they have been so successful.

To finish the evening off, Judy and Martin returned to the list of tools, techniques and methods, and asked the audience how they now saw them. Are they based on knowledge or information?, Do they focus on knowledge stocks or knowledge flows? Do they achieve their purpose?. This initiated a wide ranging and lively debate, with a lot of ideas and discussion. A particular point discussed was how to deal with the loss of critical tacit knowledge when key staff retired or resigned. One of the challenges is that staff often don’t know what they actually do know.

Judy and Martin concluded by inviting members to get involved with the SIG and to contact them at:

You can also view the presentation here:


Martin Gosden
Branch Chairman


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