posted 23 Aug 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 1
Knowledge is music
‘Making’ knowledge is much like making music.
By Jerry Ash
Arthur Shelley says he’s on the sidelines of knowledge management (KM), an avid lurker in the act-KM forum, a vibrant online discussion group based in Australia. But he is a master of metaphors and the author of a hilarious but meaningful new book just about to be published, The Organizational Zoo: A Light-hearted Survival Guide for Business Environments.
Sometimes he speaks up in ACT-KM discussions and recently proposed music as a suitable metaphor for knowledge. “Music,” he said, “is written, recorded, filed, archived, accessed, performed and used in many ways by different people for different reasons.”
We may participate as writer, performer, teacher, critic or just as a listener. We can be influenced by others or be divergent in what we deliver. Music (knowledge) can be done very well or very badly by individuals, small or very large groups.
In very large groups it usually involves some common documentation in an understood format and structure so that each person knows what part he or she is responsible for and at what stage. The oboe may not always be heard but it intermittently contributes to the harmony, only occasionally in evidence as a solo.
Trombones, on the other hand, are usually heard every time they contribute.
This is why conductors (managers) are so important. They don’t make the music; they manage the performance and help to integrate the use of the tools to optimise output, appreciation and benefits. Music can be categorised, used, experienced, enjoyed or hated very differently depending on who we are, what we want from it and in what situations we find ourselves.
Turn it up
Of course, one person’s music is another’s noise…
“No wonder we can never agree on what music (knowledge) is. It is a thing, a process and a range of other things depending upon our individual perspective and experience. It becomes something different just through our involvement with it. Because we are all doing different things with our music and engaging it with entities differently, we can never collectively agree on exactly what it is,” says Shelley.
The next time you need an ‘elevator pitch’ to describe KM, Shelley suggests you say: “I create, record, perform, conduct (or whatever) music (knowledge) for myself, the organisation, charity, a target audience (or whatever) because it generates benefits, makes others happy (or whatever).”
If you were to take that template and begin choosing your own words to fill it in, you would likely end up with a statement that would work only for you or your organisation; it wouldn’t produce a universal definition of knowledge, KM or knowledge work.
Our latest case report (please see ‘Accenture’s Knowledge Continuum’ on page 16) provides a perfect point. The report, which doesn’t cover Accenture’s entire KM programme by any means, gives us a clear picture of what knowledge means to the computer services giant’s world of learning.
Knowledge in that case becomes something different just because of its involvement in training and development (T&D). It has a specific use – Tom Barfield, global KM lead at Accenture, makes it clear: “… the training curriculum is all about building the Accenture professional.”
Thus, those who ‘play the music’ deliver a different interpretation of the notes and lyrics of KM than some others. But regardless of the way the music is played, it is still KM.
Hubert Saint-Onge doesn’t play the music that way. He remembers training and development as a ‘march’ and prefers the stylistic freedom of modern music more commonly accepted as KM. And so he wants to disband the marching band and replace it with a more creative ensemble. For him, that makes good music by capitalising on diversity and discordant views to create new knowledge outside corporate convention.
Knowledge and its use doesn’t have to be either-or. Its management can produce whatever the manager wants to produce. For Accenture, the KM goal is to develop some consistency across its 133,000 employees spread across the globe in 48 countries. A small ensemble would not be heard. Bring on the brass band – and lots of trombones.
The structured rendition of KM does not necessarily inspire the kind of independent thinking or innovation with which it has become more commonly identified. KM is more often described as open ended, not prescribed. Purists would not accept Accenture T&D’s “common documentation” (or sheet music).
The integration of KM and training and development at Accenture demonstrates that KM can be played differently and in amazing harmony. In music it would be called ‘counterpoint’. This involves two independent melodies performed simultaneously. Although everyone is singing a different tune, they share a common harmonic structure that blends independent melodies into a happy unit.
There is a classic Jim Henson Muppets Christmas special that includes an episode where a female soloist and a male musical group both lose in a talent show. They walk home together and the group starts singing its song. The female soloist says, “Say boys, I think our two songs can fit together.” She gives them the cue, the boys start singing and she joins with her song in harmony.
They are walking past the supper club of one of the talent show judges, who steps outside to listen. “You know,” he says, “we thought both of you were very good but there was a little something missing. Now I know what it was. It was each other.”
Jerry Ash is KM coach, founder of the Association of Knowledgework, http://www.kwork.org, and special correspondent to IK. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org