posted 18 Dec 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 4
A research group is bringing the theories and practices of knowledge management to academia.
By Jerry Ash
You’ve probably heard many a manager say that a fresh college graduate is like receiving raw material. Even though they’ve been students for 16 or so years, the first thing you have to do is train them.
If they could, managers would rather have new recruits with some field experience.
Imagine the problem in a learning organisation. Unless those recruits came from a ‘learning’ institution, they would have to learn more than the ‘ropes’. They would have to learn how to learn. Isn’t that ironic?
The problem isn’t just with higher education, though, where we all remember the 45-minute lecture. At least in the US, from first grade to college graduation, teachers have traditionally walked into the classroom, bringing knowledge to a sea of individual faces that presumably have none. The worst case is the professor whose lecture notes are tattered and torn.
According to the old style, the force-feeding process continues with reading assignments in text books and a little research in the library, complete with recommended readings.
In industry, education is moving from training to learning, from the classroom to the workplace, from prescriptive to self-directed learning. People are expected to learn continuously – at the ‘work face’, when they need to know and when they are most likely to retain what they’ve learnt. Studies indicate that between 80 and 90 per cent of classroom learning is lost if it is not applied within a few weeks. On the other hand, lessons learnt and applied in a practical situation stick immediately.
However, the US education system remains prescriptive all the way through high school. Students don’t attend to learn, but rather to pass tests. The way students are taught is mostly up to each of the individual 50 states. In Florida, for example, as in many other states, the testing mentality is so extreme that students in grades three through to 11 (children from the age of eight to 17) must pass Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) to proceed to the next grade. A senior who has passed all of his or her classes must have also passed a string of FCATs to graduate from high school. Many can pass their class grades, but if they fail an FCAT they end up without a diploma. It’s hard to tell how many of those drop-outs are bright minds looking for the right learning environment.
Can you imagine the mindset of teachers and students in Florida? Teachers who will be judged along with their institutions on FCAT scores; students who study not for the love and excitement of discovery and learning, but for the fear of missing out on the future if they don’t pass the test. Education in Florida is going in the opposite direction of the business community, where innovation – not just a passing grade – is the goal. Florida clones graduates, stamping them out as standard issue.
Learning – as distinct from being taught – has not yet become the American way even though it is an ideal in many other world cultures. When cultures think shoveling knowledge into empty minds is the way, they are producing minds that have to be ‘taught’ how to un-learn, think and re-learn on the job in a way contrary to the educational systems that produced them.
Higher education is just as affected by all this as first-time employers are. Colleges receive students with high test scores, but a low ability (if not passion) for learning. Like employers, they need to retrain recruits first before they can make it to the status of a ‘learning organisation’.
The good news is that higher education is showing considerable interest in changing the way we transfer knowledge, both in the classroom and in the college presidential suite. Equally fortuitously, higher education still clings to the principles of academic freedom. Professors and entire faculties are paying attention to the theories and practices of knowledge management (KM) and, like some of their corporate counterparts, they are studying, advocating and pioneering the learning approach in their courses. The best of them are now offering classes, sequences and degree tracks in KM.
But KM is spotty in higher education, just as it is in modern business. The urgency is for it to break the bad patterns of learning caused by the ‘lower’ education of the public school system. Colleges need to keep up with the demand for graduates who know how to think differently, share and learn in a workplace environment of knowledge growth and exchange.
The Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) is at the vanguard of this movement. ISKME is an independent, non-profit research institute based in Half Moon Bay, California. It conducts studies, develops resources and facilitates community-building with the goal of helping educational institutions increase their capacity to collect and share information. In addition, it provides help to enable them to apply it to well-defined problems, and to support inquiry and continuous improvement directed toward student success.
By leveraging principles of KM, ISKME’s research examines the capacity of the education sector – schools, colleges, universities and the organisations that support them – to systematically collect data and information, improve decision-making and leadership at all levels and explore the impact of programmes and services. The aim is, ultimately, to help them create human-centered environments that use and advance knowledge to support continuous learning and improvement.
ISKME also examines and assists in developing federal, state and system-level policies that promote data use and knowledge-based decision-making in schools and on campus.
Founded in 2002 by Lisa Petrides, an education expert and former professor at Columbia University in New York, the institute partners with a wide range of public and private enterprises and receives support from educational institutions, foundations, businesses and government sources.
In 2003, ISKME published a first report on KM in education, one that has since been downloaded for free by thousands of people in more than 80 countries. The authors are Petrides and Thad R. Nodine, a senior writer and editor for ISKME.
The monograph does not get off to a good start by describing KM as “a set of practices that helps to improve the use and sharing of data and information in decision-making”, but the broader perspective of knowledge management appears later in a section called, ‘A Knowledge Management Approach’. The paper focuses not so much on curricular KM as it does about the practical application of KM in college administration. Not a bad idea since the spread of KM is always faster when it is practiced and then preached from the bully pulpit (which has become the gentler KM pulpit of course).
The section on KM couldn’t start off better: “Educational organisations – whether they be schools, colleges, universities or systems – are not machines. That is, the machine model for organisational development, which describes various inputs being transformed by specific processes into outputs, is not particularly accurate or useful in understanding the complex ways that educational organisations function. It is much more useful to consider educational organisations as adaptive, social systems where people co-operate to achieve common purpose.
“Organisms recreate themselves through the transformation of matter and energy. Just as eco-systems rejuvenate themselves through cycles and seasons, educational organisations grow and revitalise themselves through the knowledge they create, their processes for passing that knowledge on to others, and the exchanges and relationships that they foster among people.”
Well said, as is this agreeable statement: “…schools, colleges and universities are charged with passing along knowledge to students (through exchanges between students and teachers, through exchanges between students and books or other resources, and through exchanges among students themselves)”.
The authors go on to state that educational institutions face similar challenges that many other organisations face as they seek to share information and knowledge among people within the organisation. “Technical systems can help to generate data and information,” they agree; however, “To facilitate the sharing of information and knowledge, educational organisations have begun to look beyond technical capabilities and to focus on their overall information environment: human resource policies, information politics, group dynamics, departmental silos, processes for information exchange and the organisation’s incentive structure.”
The monograph gets out of sync’ with most KM practitioners later on when it presents a section on ‘The Knowledge Management Continuum’ (data, information, knowledge), which, by inference, limits KM to only that which can or has been codified, a small fraction of all human knowledge. KM’s top thinkers see a continuum (if they see it at all) as only a small part of KM’s value. And in spite of the ‘continuum’ gaffe, ISKME remains focused on the bigger picture. Even in the continuum section, it states that “knowledge is both individual and organisational” and adds that it flows through people, as well as machines.
KM’s aversion to the continuum scenario may be due to the thus-far realised fear that the information-to-knowledge approach of describing KM has more often than not become the total view.
Regardless of the drift back and forth between information and knowledge, a deeper understanding emerges. At one point the authors opine that the power of KM compared to other change efforts is that it maintains focus on people – faculty, staff and students – and their needs. There is no quick fix, no single system that can manage knowledge. In the final analysis, they write, “it is people who manage knowledge and it is the role of organisations to promote policies and practices that help people want to share and manage knowledge effectively.”
ISKME is also producing a list of educational institutions worldwide offering knowledge management courses and degree programmes, with a wide content ranging from information management to knowledge management. As you might expect, those programmes offered in technical colleges and universities generally – but not always – are in the information management mode, while KM programmes offered by business schools, departments of sociology, public policy, continuing and adult education tend toward the human side.
Unfortunately, the majority of educational systems around the world are either behind or not even on the map at all, even though the swing toward self-directed learning and KM started long ago. Again, not unlike the business community.
Do you remember the famous television commercial announcing the world’s first personal computer for the home, the classroom and the workplace? They called it a Macintosh when the commercial was screened during the 1984 Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Raiders and the Washington Redskins which, incidentally, turned out to be the largest rout in Super Bowl history at that time. But it was the commercial, not the game, that became the most talked about event of the day, mostly because people didn’t understand it.
But it was memorable.
On the screen men were marching through a tube, each dressed in fatigues, combat boots and sporting shaved heads. On a huge, fuzzy screen a talking shaved head was touting “the first glorious anniversary of the information purification directives” in a “garden of pure ideology”. Through the unification of thoughts, the commercial proclaimed, “We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause . . . . We shall prevail.”
From another angle, a muscular blonde woman in sports shorts and tank top ran forward with a sledge hammer, pursued by police in riot gear. She gave the hammer a mighty swing through the air and it exploded as it hit the talking head on the screen.
Then a commercial message flashed announcing Apple Computer would introduce Macintosh computers the next week. And here’s the prophetic message: “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’.” The reference to 1984, of course, was to the classic George Orwell book. But instead of ‘Big Brother’ controlling our actions and thoughts, partly through technology, technology would put us in control of our own minds and information.
Soon, these computers were flying off the shelves, but few understood the significance of having them. We were making our first step into the ‘knowledge age’ without knowing it. We had the hardware and the software would follow. The internet would be born and the Worldwide Web would connect us around the globe.
Yet here we are entering 2007 – 23 years since the first serious personal computer – and too many in commerce and education have yet to understand the full significance of that first PC. We were entering an amazing new period of self-driven learning and working and we would all (individuals and organisations alike) be able to become more than we had ever dreamed we could be. Such a powerful story – and so many still don’t get it.
Add the folks at ISKME to your list of heroes for the knowledge age. They are truly our educational partners.
For the complete ISKME monograph: http://www.iskme.org/monograph.html.
Jerry Ash is KM coach, founder of the Association of Knowledgework, http://www.kwork.org, and special correspondent to Inside Knowledge. He is also the author of the ARK Group’s latest major report, Next Generation Knowledge Management. To order, contact Adam Scrimshire at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jerry Ash can be reached by e-mailing email@example.com.
For a run-down of all the universities and colleges offering KM degree courses, please e-mail Jerry at the e-mail address above.