posted 5 Jun 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 9
Should it be wisdom – not knowledge – management?
By Patrick Lambe
The actKM worldwide forum has been debating whether it’s time to extend KM into wisdom management.
Joe Firestone thinks the definitional ambiguities of KM would be far exceeded by those of wisdom management (WM), making it an unproductive endeavour. Steve Denning believes there is already a growing literature and service provision in the field of WM, citing the work of Dorothy Leonard and Gary Klein.
Dave Snowden, in characteristic fashion, believes WM pundits should be shot.
One can understand Denning’s progression from storytelling to leadership to wisdom. He has already covered two thirds of that path in his influential books. Both storytelling and leadership, in different ways, depend on what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief”. The storyteller asks his audience, “trust me, follow me, even when my story seems to defy the way everyday life works”. The leader asks her people, “trust me, follow me, even when the path looks difficult and against your immediate interest”.
And the idea of WM does seem to have that ?trust me, I know best, you’re not really qualified to question me’ character to it. ‘Wisdom‘ is sufficiently imprecise to make its possession effectively unverifiable in a general, objective way, and sufficiently confusable with charisma to make its claims believable at least by some. There are two problems with this.
First, the risks of asking for a willing suspension of disbelief escalate as you move from stories, to leadership actions, to general claims for ‘authentic‘ WM. We know when we’re listening to a story, and we generally know how to understand and trust stories. We also know how to assess the track record and reputation of leaders – although it’s easier to be let down badly by leaders than it is by stories.
But asking for generic trust for unverifiable WM processes smacks of what cults do. If the message is at any point that ‘You’re not qualified to comment about this; you’re not wise enough, so trust the people who know’, then you are definitely in cult-like territory, with all its associated dangers.
Second, WM as an evolution of KM takes it in a retrograde direction. WM cannot but focus on the knowledge and ability of privileged individuals. It’s possible to do good work in expertise transfer and in building the capabilities of employees beyond information management, but this is only one aspect of KM – and not its most critical.
If KM has learned anything in the past decade, it is that a focus on the knowledge of individuals gets you only so far. Most of the really big problems affecting organisational effectiveness are about how organisations process and use knowledge collectively, how they learn collectively, how they make decisions collectively.
Show me a disaster – Katrina, Enron, 911 – and I will show you problems with how individuals’ knowledge fails to scale to an effective organisational response. The notion of WM is a gigantic red herring based on an increasingly outdated individualism.
Patrick Lambe is a KM consultant at Straits Knowledge,
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