Don’t Mine Knowledge, Cultivate It

Departure today from the technical how-to topics I have been blogging on. This time I’m waxing poetic on why I think organizations that depend on “knowledge work” have the wrong attitude and approach toward knowledge. I’m moved to write about this by a recent professional experience that struck a chord from my consulting past during which “knowledge management” was something you could say without apologizing (well, in certain crowds, anyway). Regardless of the heading you put this under and how buzzword compliant that heading is, the basic situation is the same for most of us knowledge workers:

  • Our success depends upon what we know and what we can learn that others know
  • Our employers/clients expect us to have a lot of this knowledge stuff already, but they also expect us to have clever (and inexpensive) ways of getting more of it
  • Nobody has the faintest clue what knowledge really is and how to get more of it.

OK, the gauntlet is down. I make this claim because in the 25 years that I have been working in and around software products and systems that help people do their jobs better, I haven’t seen anyone — except knowledge management consultants — pay attention to this valuable asset called knowledge. Pretty much everyone is all over the idea of information, which they think is a synonym for knowledge. But I don’t think people really get the knowledge thing.

What separates knowledge from information is so basic it feels silly to write it down — knowledge is what people — breathing humans — know. I realize that was a tautology; let me try to get out of that doghouse. What makes something knowledge is your experiences and the way you have connected these to the facts and figures you understand. The facts and figures are not knowledge — they’re just information. Data. You combine that data with your experiences to produce a bit of knowledge. Here’s an example that Bostonians will appreciate given that June in Boston this year was so wet, cool, and murky it was how you imagine the forests to be when you read a Tolkien novel. Anyhow, if I have the info that it’s the middle of June in Boston and this morning it’s cold enough for me to wear a fleece pullover, I have a good hunch it’ll rain today. I don’t have the information on the future of my local weather, I have the knowledge that if you get nasty cold in Boston in June, that’s not customary — something is happening, and from my experience, that something is likely to be rain. I know to carry an umbrella or wear a hat.

So who cares whether knowledge and information are the same or different? Did you ever fly in a plane? If so, you should care about the difference. What every dial and lever in that cockpit means and what it controls is nothing more than a large body of information. If I were armed with that information (the manuals are carried on every airplane), would you feel comfortable letting me fly that plane? Didn’t think so. Even if I had a week to read all the manuals first? Um…nope. And why not? Because flying a plane depends on so much more than the assembled facts and figures of how a plane operates. OK, so why should an insurance business or a telecommunications carrier or a retail chain care about knowledge? They send a lot of their people to training — doesn’t this give the employees what they need to know to do their jobs?

Only a little — and only temporarily. Training classes have a notoriously low rate of retention (ask any instructional design maven), AND, a lot of class content is information, not knowledge. People get more training on how to work the customer service computer program (“hit F5 after you enter the phone number”) than they do on how to provide good customer service (“let an angry caller tell his story before interrupting to ask the phone number”). To do most “knowledge worker” jobs well takes more than classroom learning. You need enough experience to have seen some of the exceptional cases; you need to develop some intuition about what will happen based on your decisions and actions. This is what makes the hot shots hot; what they know goes beyond the mechanics of the ordinary. Experts can operate in the realm of what will happen or what should be the case or what mustn’t be done. And doesn’t every knowledge intensive business want as many employees as possible to perform like experts?

This knowledge stuff is valuable — in more extreme cases, it can keep people alive, and in ordinary cases, it can help you acquire customers and retain them; lack of it can certainly help you lose them. So why don’t businesses approach knowledge the right way? Some confuse knowledge with information, and those businesses think they are doing the right thing. They run training and they cram binders with factoids (and you can even take the course materials away on a USB memory stick!). Other businesses see that, despite the need to impart information to their workers, this alone won’t result in expert or near-expert performance. These businesses do see the need to harness their workers’ knowledge, but sadly, they usually look for it in the wrong place. If knowledge is what people know, then the right place to find it is in people’s HEADS. You are pretty unlikely to find it in their documents, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. But that’s exactly where most organizations think knowledge resides — the “K: drive,” that shared place where we store all our files. This isn’t impossible — a person can put his wisdom down in writing — it’s just improbable. Documents are most often about info, not knowledge. Did you ever turn to the Encyclopedia Brittanica to solve a thorny problem or make a tough decision?

This notion that all these documents we business folk keep cranking out constitute the institutional knowledge base is not only wrong, it breeds two assumptions that throw us further off the scent from being able to capture the real knowledge:

  • Mistaken Assumption #1: A continuous supply of knowledge is a given
  • Mistaken Assumption #2: Knowledge is something to be mined

A bounteous knowledge supply is not a given because knowledge has to come from people, and people don’t usually commit their knowledge to writing because they are over-worked and under-motivated. And even if they were moved to do it, there’s no home for their knowledge in what corporations traditionally (and mistakenly) think of as the knowledge base. Valuable knowledge walks out the door at 6:00 every day because people have nowhere to put it and the contribution method — cranking out a document — is too difficult.

Because businesses think the document dumping ground is a knowledge base, they are led to their second faulty point of view, which is that knowledge is something to be mined. Hey, there’s a lot of dreck on the K: drive, so if there are any nuggets of wisdom in there, you’re gonna need to do some mining, right? The whole enterprise search industry depends on this attitude. But mining is the wrong point of view. It implies a scarce supply of something valuable trapped inside a nearly endless supply of something worthless. Sound like your company’s shared drive?

What we need to do is cultivate knowledge, not mine it. But how do you get at what people are carrying around in their heads? We know from the explosion of the web that there are a lot of would-be content contributors out there. It’s no longer a hope or wish that if you give people a way to contribute what they know, many of them will do it freely. We need to make it easy, though. And we need to stop being afraid of it — some organizations legislate this sort of behavior out of existence. Here’s what I think are the essentials:

  • Provide new kinds of tools so people can easily capture and contribute their insights without having to slog through the process of writing a document
  • Give people tools that connect them either to the knowledge they are looking for or to like-minded collaborators
  • Take active steps to stimulate the flow of ideas between collaborators so that insights and innovations can occur

I see this as a self-reinforcing loop: capture what people know (both their long-standing know-how and their newly-formed “Eureka!” moments), connect people to knowledge and to each other, stimulate the creation and flow of ideas, and repeat from the top. With this loop in place, you really can have a knowledge repository rather than a file archive. And with more know-how and less dreck in the repository, employees stand a much better chance of latching onto an insight that will improve their performance and make an actual difference for their organization.

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