posted 1 Jun 1998 in Volume 1 Issue 6
The ecology of a sustainable knowledge
“A prince who is not himself wise cannot be wisely advised.”
This article aims to establish some principles and guidelines for creating a sustainable and balanced knowledge programme. David Snowden identifies some of the key issues that must be undertaken over the course of a knowledge programme. He concludes that knowledge is an organic rather than mechanistic model, and can only truly be achieved through the creation of trust, a vital prerequisite of knowledge exchange.
Most management models post 1940 have assumed a mechanistic and directive model of science and the firm. Like the Newtonian models of physics on which they are modelled, they assume that sufficient data capture and analysis will reveal universal laws, which will enable scientific management. The last and most extreme of these models was Business Process Re-engineering; originating in cybernetics it represented the ultimate manifestation of the organisation as machine.
Knowledge management has the potential to be a quantum (sic) shift in thinking, from mechanistic to organic models of the organisation and society. It embraces the reality of uncertainty and enables the deployment of Intellectual Assets - in particular tacit, community-based skills - to manage that uncertainty for innovation and competitive edge. For this potential to be realised we require new modes of consultancy practice and a change in corporate culture to enable the creation of trust - the most vital prerequisite of knowledge exchange. Given that this type of change threatens the financial models of the major management consultancies, and contradicts the solution-case basis of much Business School teaching, it won’t be easy. However, wisdom is not achieved without sacrifice, and more importantly, wisdom can not be ‘bought in’. As Machiavelli rightly advised - wisdom is a precondition of accepting wise advice.
The seeds of success or destruction are set in the early stages of a knowledge program. In this final article of the trilogy1 an attempt is made to establish some principles and guide lines for creating a sustainable and balanced knowledge program.
In the first of this eclectic and somewhat polemical series of articles I introduced a tongue in cheek matrix based on two classifications of sin: mortal or venial; omission or commission. In that article I explored a mortal sin of omission, namely the failure to initiate tacit knowledge projects at the commencement of a program. A taxonomy of tacit knowledge and some initial ideas on knowledge diaries led to the second article in which I elaborated on the need for knowledge mapping and proposed two business models:
1. an uncertainty matrix to determine the balance of explicit and tacit knowledge in a particular decision context;
2. An idealised model for understanding the principle practices of Knowledge Management which linked knowledge mapping with competence creation, intellectual capital management and tacit knowledge (or competence) management.2
In this final article I want to explore what it means to create a sustainable ecology for knowledge creation, exchange and utilisation. In doing this I will explore the other three segments of the ‘sin matrix’. For new readers I should identify that mortal sins are those that necessarily lead to damnation, whereas venial sins require a prolonged period in purgatory - recovery is possible if painful. Sins of commission are those that are deliberate acts, whereas sins of omission imply some failure to act - going with the flow.
Venial Sin of Commission
Creating a pilot project(s), not a program
The majority of companies in the UK and US are now either running or initiating knowledge projects. Sometimes this is an attempt to run a pilot project to test out what it would mean to use intellectual capital. Frequently it may be simply a pet project which is tagged as ‘Knowledge Management’ to gain funding. Particularly in the provision of technology we see the increasing prevalence of ‘knowledge ware’.
One danger with Knowledge Tagging is that it can couple knowledge management with a single conventionally run project or a particular technology. Knowledge Management is the collection of methods, tools and techniques by which we enable the effective utilisation of Intellectual Capital. In creating a knowledge management project (particularly the first) we are seeking to understand the potential use of Intellectual Capital. In investing in financial assets, in particular stocks we always try to achieve a balanced portfolio. Investors are discouraged from putting all their eggs in one basket. The same is true of Intellectual Capital. A single project is a dangerous start; a portfolio spreads the risk. However, creating a portfolio requires:
1. Establishing a distinct language and structure to enable the community to articulate the nature of knowledge management activity that a particular project is intended to achieve. In the first article of this series I used the contrasting dimensions of knowledge as (i) an asset (held by individuals or communities), with (ii) the exercise of judgement (balancing the use of tacit and explicit knowledge), to identify four types of transitional activity in managing knowledge. These were: (i) sharing explicit knowledge by distributing processes and procedures and association database access either directly or via a catalogue to related information; (ii) sharing tacit knowledge through institution of apprentice schemes, community spaces etc.; (iii) making tacit knowledge explicit through process re-engineering, documentation and data mining; (iv) and, potentially the most powerful, creating a sufficient level of trust within the organisation to permit the move of some decision making from an explicit basis to a tacit basis (most often required in conditions of change, innovation, complexity and uncertainty).
2. Using the distinct language and structures thus created to ensure a balanced portfolio of projects/pilots that cover in various combinations the four transitional activities. Figure 1 shows this in a diagrammatic form. As can be seen it is unlikely that a single project will be focused on one transitional activity. However it will have a strong focus on some, with a weaker focus on others. As projects are plotted onto the framework we start to see the gaps in coverage of the four transitional activities. Provided that we have mapped the knowledge assets of the organisation, we also are able to gain a sense of the balance between the organisation’s most important knowledge assets and the types of knowledge exchange that the pilots are targeting. A company with high tacit dependency, running its first pilot in explicit knowledge exchange may be getting the emphasis wrong - or, worse, may be confused. Ideally an organisation should determine the investment criteria and success measures likely for each of the transitional activities. If this is done before project selection it provides greater stability in the corporate perception of the knowledge program.
3. Reviewing other projects and activities that may have an impact on a firm’s understanding of knowledge. Most companies who are ready to commence a knowledge project will already be undertaking activities which would be enhanced by an understanding of the types of transitional activity implied by their goals. Inclusion of such activities in the portfolio will increase both the understanding and visibility of the program. Also it will identify common components - particularly in the area of cultural change. This latter is critical, not to save cost (although that is a side benefit) but to prevent confusing or contradictory messages, particularly in the use of language. The “I’ve got a better knowledge project than you” syndrome is already visible in some companies and is best avoided as early as possible through the creation of a common framework, such as that suggested in figure 1, together with associated education. The other key factor is the creation of a part time core knowledge team, a subject addressed in the next section of this article.
Critical to understanding this need for a balanced portfolio is the need to appreciate that knowledge management is not a practice to be stacked up with process re-engineering, quality improvement etc. It is a mind shift change that will permeate the entirety of an organisation’s activities. While some projects will be expensive and time consuming (the provision of a knowledge infrastructure for example) many projects are relatively easy to put in place and cost little or nothing for high returns. A spread of projects will assist this understanding at all levels within an organisation.
Venial Sin of Omission
Failure to act knowledgeably in the program
Hypocrisy is one of the great management sins. “People are our most important asset” was the headline of many a corporate report immediately prior to the decimation of crudely applied BPR exercises. A precondition of knowledge exchange requires trust, all too often lacking in the down sized company.3 I have not carried out objective research to establish the following assertion. However, I am pretty well convinced from practical observation that the true intellectual assets of a company are often in its most loyal employees. The career climbing manager - working from one short term engineered success to the next on the corporate ladder - too frequently relies on this loyalty to sustain his/her highly focused charge. It is unlikely, however, that such behaviour will allow access to the underlying and hidden networks of trust and interdependency that sustain most organizations. As Peter Druker asserts, the knowledge worker is a volunteer not a conscript.
There is one underlying (but not exclusive) cause for these tensions. Most management training relates to the effective management of financial assets. Individuals are a cost of sale or an expense. Measurement and deployment models for financial assets are based on the unavoidable truth of depreciation and consequent rationing. In contrast Intellectual Assets appreciate in use and depreciate if they are unused. ‘Rationing’ effectively stifles creativity and innovation. If we are to change to a trusting environment it will require the creation of measures based on the concept of appreciation rather than depreciation, and the permeation of management training with these measures. Like most of the fundamentals of knowledge management this requires a shift to thinking about the ecology of an organisation, working from organic rather than mechanistic models of measurement, goal setting and intervention.
It follows that in the era of Intellectual Capital, value cannot be achieved without values. The creation of values and consequent levels of trust is easily destroyed but difficult to build. The early days of a knowledge program are the ideal time to set in place the actions that will enable the creation of values. To do this requires an organisation to establish a set of simple, memorable rules that can guide its behaviour during the knowledge program. These rules need to developed by each organisation at the start of its program. They need to be expressed in the language of that organisation and each rule should be supported by a story that allows the effective communication of the underlying values to the organisation as a whole. This combination of rules and stories is effectively the brand of the knowledge program. In the same way as a company protects its brand and prevents any compromise (particularly during the early days when the brand is not strong) so those responsible for the knowledge program must propagate and protect their brand - they must prevent Knowledge Tagging. In helping companies create a knowledge program I would generally start with a basic education program in brand marketing. If the custodians of your knowledge program understand what it is to create and sustain a brand your chances of success are considerably increased. One general rule that I would always recommend as essential is that all models will be simple and memorable. If your underlying model (ideally expressed as a picture) cannot be repeated after one telling from memory, then you will not communicate it.
Creating a team of people to create and sustain the knowledge program is key to successful implementation. The way in which such a team is created and sustained is one of the most powerful early messages that an organisation provides as to the values it intends to propagate. As the infrastructure supporting Intellectual Capital exchange increases, then the program will require full time staff. However in the early days this should be kept to a minimum. Even in periods of maturity organizations should avoid a group of individuals being tagged as responsible for ‘Knowledge’. One of the most fundamental shifts required is to make everyone aware of their responsibilities to share, grow and exchange knowledge. At the same time there needs to be a focus and a champion(s) for the program. One way to achieve this is to allow the knowledge team to evolve. After all, we are working from organic models: evolution builds a more sustainable - and self-renewing - environment than mechanistic construction.
Building the initial knowledge map (or sketch plan) of an organisation is one of the best ways of allowing a team to evolve. I argued in both the preceding articles that mapping was an essential (and preferably initial) knowledge management activity. In creating the map I argued for a modification of the mediaeval craft hall as a means of exchange and creation of knowledge in the map building stage. This is most effectively done by providing for a part time - and open knowledge team. I would normally start a knowledge mapping exercise with a team allocated to the project by the sponsor. Aside from a project manager, whose role is principally administrative, such a team should be part time - no more than 10-30% of their time. The reason for this is two-fold:
1. If members of the core team retain their day jobs, then the enthusiasm that they gain for the process will be communicated rapidly through the co-dependency networks to which they belong. They will gain access to hidden knowledge assets and to knowledge owners more naturally if they are not isolated as ‘THE KNOWLEDGE TEAM’. As they mix their normal work with their knowledge mapping responsibilities the basic messages - the values and branding - of the program will be communicated tacitly as well as explicitly to the wider communities that make up the organisation. They will also create new networks and linkages between those communities. In these circumstances it will always be possible to identify low investment, high return early win projects to include in the balanced portfolio that the map and the mapping process will generate.
2. Anyone who is really interested (as opposed to a knowledge tagging carpet-bagger) will find 10% of their time to contribute. New people can join the team - they can drift into the craft hall. Team members uncomfortable with the process can drift out without it being a major issue. Too many full time teams are inhibited by the presence of someone who just doesn’t get it and whose cynicism inhibits the team. Equally, key individuals may not be available for full time work, and their part time presence in a full time team inhibits equal contributions. In my view this type of organic, networking and fluid type of structure is at the heart of an effective knowledge program. The structure of the team should reflect the nature of natural knowledge exchange. It is equally true that as a knowledge program becomes more mature the infrastructure and artefact storage and propagation systems will require dedicated staff. The team thus reflects the nature of knowledge. Explicit knowledge requires structure and full time staff; tacit is about communities and networks. In the formation period, tacit is far and away the most important.
The most fundamental point being made here is that the creation of a knowledge program is a knowledge management exercise in its own right. Creating such a program in a conventional, process orientated way automatically creates a contradiction and tension with the goals of a knowledge program. Formation of a knowledge program and its staffing must be consistent - almost to the point of paranoia - with the principles of knowledge creation and exchange. We must act knowledgeably in the creation of our knowledge program.
Cartography as Virtue
Integrating the knowledge map to the organisation as a whole
Before moving to the final mortal sin of commission I want to complete the work of the previous articles by identifying how we integrate the mapping of knowledge into the fabric of the organisation. In the preceding articles I identified how we can discover knowledge, not through asking people what they know, but through identifying and tracking the decisions they make. From the decision clusters that emerge one can impute the knowledge assets being used and classify them as explicit knowledge (residing in artefacts) or tacit knowledge (residing in individuals or communities). The process of identifying and classifying such assets is of course continuous - a map is only as good as its last survey. Once we have identified the knowledge then we have to do two things, one quick (but clean) and the other more comprehensive and lasting.
1.Link the knowledge assets to core processes
Knowledge does not replace process efficiency - it complements and enables it. Accordingly, one of the last activities in the 6-8 weeks’ intensive initial mapping exercise I identified in the previous articles is to relate the assets discovered to processes. This also provides a checkpoint to ensure that there are no major gaps in the map. The structure of that is illustrated in Figure 2.
This model4 allows the knowledge team to provide an assessment of the dependency of a particular process on a group of knowledge assets. The team also needs to assess the effectiveness of the asset use. This model then provides a powerful tool for cost justification and for project definition. A core process with a strong dependency on a poorly utilised knowledge asset is an obvious area of immediate action.
2.Create a classification structure for knowledge assets
In order to sustain a mapping process it is essential to create a classification structure that will sustain detailed analysis as the map grows and matures. This is illustrated in figure 3.5 Domains are clusters of tacit or explicit knowledge and associated information that have a strong relationship. They are the most visible layer and articulation of Intellectual Capital within an organisation. Below this is the type of asset which is likely to be catalogued on the basis of the competence community which is the prime user of owner of the asset - again these can be tacit, explicit or mixed. Finally, the attribute reflects the details of what we need to know.
It is important to realise that the assets will not necessarily correspond with departments, they will cut through Organizational, divisional and geographical boundaries. The will cross cultural barriers, ingrained practices and attitudes. As such developing the catalogue as a ‘product’ can greatly assist in its propagation. By moving from thinking about projects to a program that creates, maintains and generates a product will give a greater sense of ownership to the organisation as a whole. For service-based companies this product will itself be of major value. Prospective purchases will be able to see tangible evidence that the ‘knowledge’ claimed not only exists, but is catalogued and can therefore be deployed quickly and efficiently in their service.
The other major advantage of this ‘product’ approach is that the issue of valuation, pricing and promotion can now be applied building on existing concepts and understanding with the organisation and its partners. In the event of a merger or acquisition we now have an ability to focus on Intellectual Capital, as well as carrying out due diligence on financial assets. With our partners we can create complementary products and services.
Finally, cataloguing and process linking are key to valuation. Too many companies struggle with the concept of asset valuation in abstract. It is very difficult to value something if you don’t know what it is, where it exists and how dependent one’s core processes are on its deployment. Once as asset is identified, most organizations can readily find a common sense method of valuation. This is key as we move into the next step change in Intellectual Capital Management with the emergence of markets for knowledge and formal Knowledge Exchanges. If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it, and if you don’t map it you will not be able to measure it.
Mortal Sin of Commission
Fee generating management consultancy fad
I do not wish to dwell in this particular sin. Its dangers are all too self-evident. However, it does provide an opportunity to emphasis yet again the organic nature of knowledge management.
Knowledge is not like the mechanistic models that preceded it - one cannot mandate people to share knowledge. A process improvement or quality management model could be imposed from the top. Knowledge exchange is only achieved when you win hearts and minds at all levels within the organisation. In this context hypocrisy is the worst enemy of a knowledge program. Given that we are discussing sin, it may be worth continuing the religious metaphor. The early days of any religious movement are characterised by a degree of naiveté, but fundamentally by a set of easily communicated values and beliefs that gain commitment - up to and beyond martyrdom. As the religious movement survives and grows then the theologians start to emerge and codify, structure and in most cases eventually control the movement. In the case of many management concepts the reverse seems to happen. The first to arrive are the modern equivalent of the theologian - the Management Consultancy Firm - who arrive with ‘the method’. The method carries with it a catechism which is learn by heart by the hapless victims of this ‘wisdom’ who are reduced to parroting an ill understood and little comprehended form of pidgin consultancy speak. The assumption is that belief will follow. By the time people realise it will not the theologians have created a new movement - generally without any associated value system and the whole cycle starts all over again.
Fundamentally the practice of knowledge management is a process of self-discovery. One needs a midwife to assist the birth, not a ‘consultant’ to perform a caesarean operation. Surgery is an emergency procedure with a long recovery period. It is occasionally necessary but early intervention is a virtue. And virtue is the best protection from sin.
David Snowden is at IBM. He can be contacted at: