tacit knowledge

Is Collaboration Enough for Knowledge Management?

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve written (dashed-off is more accurate) about the relationship between collaboration and team productivity, and collaboration and the ability to connect the dots.

I’m working to ensure that we move the conversation away from collaboration per se, to what we’re actually trying to achieve –

  • We want to increase the productivity of knowledge work.
  • We want to solve hard problems.
  • We want to ensure that we can leverage the collective intelligence of our organizations.
  • We want to leverage the work, expertise and assets we have.

That last bullet there is what has traditionally been called Knowledge Management.

Knowledge Management has been in a tough spot for the last couple of decades. Its been identified both as a strategic imperative, and largely a failure.

There are three key reasons for this.

1. First generation knowledge management captured only formal, not tacit, knowledge.

I previously swore off using the term tacit knowledge because people don’t get it and think that its too abstract a concept. For the purposes of this discussion, lets just say that tacit knowledge is the stuff in the organization that people know, but haven’t written down in a formal, organized fashion. It its most basic form, this is the “does anyone know if we’ve ever had a customer who needed x?” or the “does anyone know where to get y” type of information.

It is well known that the vast majority of knowledge in the enterprise is tacit.

2. First generation knowledge is not part of any natural workflow, but an afterthought.

Its an additional chore. It doesn’t help me, so I don’t always practice perfect citizenship and take the extra time to ensure my work is properly catalogued.

3. Usability is poor. I can’t find what is useful for me when I need it.

Obviously defeating the purpose.

So – how does collaboration, or more specifically, social collaboration help solve the knowledge management problem?

1. Social collaboration puts more work and communication in shared, digital form.

By work, I don’t just mean documents. I mean discussion, question and answers, comments – the types of things that often either happen over the phone, or in the black hole, commonly known as email. Because these less formal, more fragmented items are captured, indexed and searchable in conjunction with the more formal knowledge captured in documents.

2. Knowledge capture becomes an organic part of work.

The greatest part of these systems is that I do not have to do anything extra to contribute to the knowledge base. The collaboration platform just absorbs what I do as the course of my work – comment on documents, ask and answer questions, revise, collect feedback, collect links and resources, etc. THIS is the critical point – knowledge capture – the key to knowledge management is organic and automatic.

3. Ease of Use

I’ve called social media in the enterprise a Trojan horse. Its raising the bar on usability for enterprise apps (and how we approach work – but that’s the next post). Social Collaboration tools (good ones!) are well designed so that people actually want to use them. The benefit far outweighs the trouble of using them. So they actually get used. Knowledge is actually captured, and can be meaningfully found.

4. Finding and connecting.

So what about the case when there’s knowledge and resources out there, but you don’t know it? See the last post on Connecting the Dots.

Even better – if your collaboration system is a good one (disclosure, this one is my baby right now), when you search, you’ll not only find the content, but the people who are most actively contributing content in that area.

Now the obvious issue – if I build it will they come? No. They won’t. To be successful in collaboration there must be a happy marriage between understanding your business objectives, the technology, and perhaps most importantly, the culture of your organization. That will be the topic of my next post. If you’re curious about some of my thoughts in this realm prior to my next post,  you can check out a little 10 minute  webinar on the culture of teams that I did (its not my finest – lots of uhms and ahhs, but it makes the point, consider it an early rehearsal) or this slideshare below:

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turning my back on “tacit”

It all started in college when my friend, Maggie, whom i considered the unwitting victim of a charming linguistics prof, picked a fight with me ( one of those days-long undergrad debates). She claimed that all human thought was limited by language and that we couldn’t think about what we couldn’t express in words. Fooey, says I.

I’ve been “i wish I had said”-ing  that debate in my head for 25 years. (ouch).

I’ve long since lost touch with her ( I’ll look for her on facebook later), but the first argument I wish I’d offered was poetry. You might argue that poetry is language, and hence falls within her camp, but I would argue that poetry evokes rather than expresses meaning.

The next thing I thought about was Tacit Knowledge – the stuff you know before you “know” you know it. (Like the fact that I knew her argument was terrible, but I couldn’t say why). This definition of tacit knowledge is akin to what Malcom Gladwell is talking about in “Blink” – a great read, if you haven’t yet.

So later I started getting excited about knowledge management. But knowledge management of the 90’s was about documents. Documents are expressed knowledge – or explicit knowledge. Documented knowledge.

But you know what? Most knowledge is undocumented – even if it could be – it takes a ton of effort. Which means that in most companies people know a lot of stuff that they haven’t written down. And everyday they make tiny additions and refinements to that knowledge just by talking, emailing, getting to the next step, whatever. which means that even if they wanted to document it all they probably couldn’t.

This is another kind of tacit knowledge – and what it means is that probably 90% of the critical knowledge in an organization is Tacit.

One of the many reasons I love social media is that it provides a wonderful platform for sharing small things. Ideas, snippets, links. And those snippets, and links between those snippets end up being a much better representation of what a person knows than the list of documents that they’ve written. And an even better representation of what the organization as a whole knows.

This is the most interesting thing in the world to me – really. Geeky, yes, but true.

So – why have I turned my back on tacit? Well its this. Normal people don’t get tacit knowledge. Its not a term that’s understood in our culture. And I don’t think we can get from documents to tacit knowledge in a single step.

So – when I talk to people about the benefits of social-media supported collaboration, I don’t talk about tacit knowledge (well, I try not to, but sometimes I get kind of worked up.) Cause they either think I’m nuts, or that its like the semantic web – a weird concept that they don’t get and surely won’t invest in. Its like talking about shakras or something in a business meeting – just too weird.

So – I’m focusing on helping people understand the “first order” benefits of this kind of tech-mediated collaboration. The fact that things don’t get lost, that its easy for a group of people to gradually build on what’s there till you have something good, that everyone is always looking at the same set of material. That long email trails where all the good stuff is buried that you can never find again are becoming a thing of the past.

Then I talk about how you can search this stuff, finding not only the snippets, but how they fit together, and the people who’ve been contributing to them. So you can learn from all this stuff, in context. They start to see how this is valuable.

But as soon as you mention the word tacit – you see the wall go up. Its like a verbal fart. It makes people uncomfortable.

Maybe in a few years… but for no… I do not discuss Tacit Knowledge, I will not use the word Tacit. I won’t. Really.

We are “The Sims”

I like to think that sometimes my posts are pithy and clever, but I know that sometimes they are a bit abstract. This is usuallly cause I’m using this blog as a way to work through what i’m thinking about. This is one of those posts.

Back in the late 90’s, i spent a few years studying, designing and implementing “agent based simulations of complex systems “. I was studying emergent behavior. These were somewhere between “boids” and The Sims in their depth.

I was doing an incredible amount of online research, and realized that if I ever wanted to do related research it would be very difficult to re-trace my steps, bookmarks not withstanding. If I wanted OTHER people to be able to retrace my steps, it would be very difficult to share HOW I’d found what I’d found, in addition to the what.

These two issues put me on a tear to understand tacit knowledge.

So – I wrote a whitepaper that I titled the Self-Organizing Knowledge Manager. The idea was this. People are not very good at tracking things, but computers are. we could get a computer to track where we go and how we get there and what we do when we’re there, and amek it so we can retrace our own steps and share our pathways with others. You wouldn’t have to be explicit about what the relationships between the linked items were, just the fact that there were links at all. People are really good at divining meaning – unlike computers. So leverage what each does best to capture and share tacit knowledge. Simple, right?

Then I asked smart people how to build software that would track click paths, what files were open at the same time, cuts and pastes, etc. They told me I’d need a database as an operating system and it didn’t work that way. hmph.

So the punchline here of course is that Social Media tools are the perfect substrate for capturing this information. Micropublishing, in the form of wikis, blogs, tweets, etc, are capturing the little bits of insight and information, connecting them together – along with the people who contributed – to achieve a self-organizing knowledge system.

So – now people can

a) track the links between people, objects (content) and each other, capturing a ton of tacit knowledge in the process

b) enable people to participate, much like the “agents” in my old simulations, to create emergent behavior.

Unbelievable. I was reminded about all this stuff, and how (perhaps surprisingly) relevant it is in understanding social media. David Armano’s engaging and relevant talk about how his effort to help a homeless family connects the dots.

So – what do we know about tacit knowledge, and what do we know about emergent behavior.

1. We know that most people think those terms are inscrutable.

2. We know that neither are easily tangible or predictable

But – if we apply the study of complexity theory, emergent systems, and what Stephen Wolfram calls “A New Kind of Science” (the first couple hundred pages of which are fascinating, but while I love Stephen (i know him from way back) he could use an aggressive editor, the book weighs about 10 lbs (and thanks to Salinger for teaching me the art of the multiply embedded flourish of parens – there’s a quote somewhere)) and the study of communities and collaboration, then, I think we can help enterprise, government and society develop a language for expressing ideas in this area, and start to really pursue the possible.

I promise my next post will make more sense.

Oh – the title – “The Sims” is a very popular computer game which is, in essence a sophisticated agent based simulation. It is unpredictable in its behaviors and outcomes, and yet elucidates cause and effect very well. Try it and you’ll see. My obscure point here, is that the read-write web has turned its participants into real-live actor agents in a giant simulation game. We can’t predict its outcomes, but we can learn a great deal about cause, effect and the important drivers of various outcomes.