Last week someone tweeted a link to an article called “Who owns knowledge?” Fascinating title, right up my alley, couldn’t wait to read it. So I clicked away to the page hoping to find the answer to this esoteric question. Of course, the article was actually about copyright on legal documents, and it’s a great article, raising a very interesting question in this time of Super Lateral Musical Chairs. However, I was so disappointed to get to the end without a single mention of knowledge ownership. The author made a categorical mistake that is quite common, even amongst KMers. Knowledge and Information are not equivalent.
Data is to Information as Information is to Knowledge. Data is discrete objective facts or symbols, Information comes from analyzing or giving context to data, Knowledge is an understanding of how to use information in the real world. Or something like that. Templates and Precedents fall firmly in the information category, not Knowledge. We can argue about “who owns information?” But Knowledge is free, as in speech. You can not own it. (About 50 IP attorneys just got their word processors fired up to educate me on patent litigation. Bring it on!)
Which brings me to the real focus of my post. Legal KMers especially, spend a lot of time focusing on Information Management under the guise of KM. DMS, Dashboards, Enterprise Search, these are all important information repositories. KMers should absolutely be involved in implementing, maintaining, and developing these resources, but when it comes to Information Management, KM should take a back seat to IT. IT has been doing these same things for 20 years already, let them do their job.
As any good KMer does, I’m continually refining my KM definition. (Does any other profession expend so much energy defining itself?) Currently, it’s “building cultural and technological structures to facilitate knowledge transfer, through communication and collaboration.” Eh. It’s a moving target.
The point is, I think KM needs to be focused on Knowledge Transference, rather than Information Management. If we look at the meatspace equivalent of our technologies, you can immediately see what I’m talking about. DMS is like a filing cabinet– you browse through it to find a document that you or someone else placed in it earlier. You put information into it, and you get information out of it, but it works just as well if you are the only one using it. Dashboards are the equivalent of physical bulletin boards – you can glance at them and see what’s new or what’s going on, but they’re unidirectional. You get information from them, but don’t really add anything to them. Enterprise Search is the equivalent of digging through the pile of papers on your desk yelling, “Where did that go?! It was here just a moment ago!” You get the idea.
Knowledge Transference, on the other hand, is fundamentally a social activity. It takes place between two or more human beings. Historically we have done this through storytelling – fables, myths, parables – often told while sitting around a fire at the end of the day, gnawing on the hind quarters of a rodent. We like to think of ourselves as a highly evolved, technologically advanced species of super humans. But the truth is, our brains work exactly the same as they did a hundred thousand years ago. Technology gives us better ways to handle and manage information, but knowledge is still primarily transferred through stories, person to person. Today these stories are more likely to be told in classrooms, or through mentorships, as jokes at the bar, or by CEO addressing his employees around the world via teleconference. But they’re still just stories from one human being to another, passing on nuggets of understanding about a personal response to particular stimuli. The recipient of those nuggets is then equipped to evaluate that information when they find themselves responding to similar stimuli at a later time. And thus the knowledge has been passed.
I think KM should be laser-focused on facilitating storytelling in all of its various forms in the workplace. That means advocating for communal, collaborative spaces to be added during a remodel. It means holding meet-ups, or Knowledge Café’s, to discuss a particular topic relevant to your organization . It means developing mentorship programs or convincing management to hold regular conversations in the auditorium. But if your organization is decentralized and spread across the planet, it means building virtual community rooms and collaborative spaces. (You knew I would get to my cause célèbre eventually.) Knowledge Transference in the 21st century enterprise absolutely requires internal (Big S) Social technology.
Looking at these Social technologies using the meatspace technique I used earlier, the difference between Information Management and Knowledge Transference becomes clear. Blogging is the equivalent of a business leader talking to an auditorium full of employees and then taking all questions and comments. Micro-blogging is walking into the break room, finding a group of people and sitting down to discuss what you’re working on, except in a way that everyone else working on something similar can learn from that conversation. Wikis are like gathering around the conference table and hashing out an idea, except the conference table is big enough for the entire company to sit in on the meeting.
These technologies are not answers in and of themselves. Adopting them won’t inherently make your organization a better organization. In fact, they will create new problems even as they solve some old ones. But adopting these tools, learning to use them effectively, and taking advantage of the benefits they can provide, will give your organization a fighting chance to survive in a world that is moving faster than you can possibly keep up via email and telephone. Knowledge Management is, I think, about helping your company take advantage of these new technologies to tell stories better and maybe a little bit about managing information.