In this series I‘ve classified the evolving landscape of knowledge management into three categories. The first category is leveraging explicit knowledge and is about capturing documented knowledge and building it into a collection - connecting people to content. The second category is about leveraging experiential knowledge and it gave rise to communities of practice and reflection processes. It is primarily focused on connecting people to people. The third category is leveraging collective knowledge and it is about integrating ideas from multiple perspectives. Its medium is conversation in both its virtual and face-to-face forms.
In Part One, Leveraging Explicit Knowledge, knowledge was conceptualized as a commodity that was stable enough to capture and store – the mental image was of a library or warehouse. The knowledge that was deemed most critical was that of subject matter experts. Like the era that preceded the rise of knowledge management, Leveraging Explicit Knowledge was primarily focused on the individual as learner. Since subject matter experts (individuals) were seen as having the most important organizational knowledge, the knowledge management task was to get that knowledge to other individuals who had less expertise.
As knowledge professionals worked within this framework, they began to discover that explicit knowledge was only one type of knowledge that needed to be addressed. Both the value of capturing explicit knowledge and the limitations of that focus became evident. I described the first category in Part One and write about the second category in this post.
Leveraging Experiential Knowledge
Sometime around 2000 organizations began to think about their knowledge in a new way. I have labeled the second category Leveraging Experiential Knowledge and it is where I think most organizations are functioning today.
Leveraging Experiential Knowledge was a revolution in how we thought about knowledge in organizations. It was every bit as profound as the initial change that moved us into knowledge management in the mid 90s. It began with the acceptance of the idea that “know how” is important organizational knowledge – and that “know how” resides in the heads of the people who are on the frontline. “Know how” is very difficult to put into databases for two reasons:
1. it is context specific: It is learned by observing the results of taking action in a specific situation. To share it with someone else requires that the parameters of the situation be explained along with what was learned. That makes any description lengthy to write out, but more importantly, it makes a push mechanism unworkable, because there are simply too many variations in situations. For “know how,” a pull mechanism, as in (Has anybody seen X in a situation with A, B and C?) is more effective.
2. it is dynamic rather than stable: experience is continuous and therefore so is the knowledge derived from it. The question then is not, “What’s the best way to do X?” Rather the question is, “What new understanding has your recent experience yielded about X?” Answering that question needs to occur as close to real time as possible, so stored knowledge is of less value.
Knowledge professionals overwhelmingly turned to Communities of Practice to make “know how” available. CoPs dealt with the difficulties outlined above by making possible the immediate exchange of “know how” among peers on-line and in person. The exchange occurs in an environment in which the context can be taken into account by the specificity of the question asked and the capability of probing for greater detail.
Etienne Wenger’s book Communities of Practice gave us the label for this new knowledge sharing vehicle. He wrote that the exchange of knowledge among peers, although often out of sight, has always been the major way frontline workers learned their craft, having as much or more influence on their performance as a company’s training programs. That book and the one that followed it, Cultivating Communities of Practice, encouraged organizations to nurture and support these informal exchanges, as legitimized Communities of Practice.
The idea that frontline employees held important knowledge was revolutionary because up until that time, knowledge had been regarded as the purview of managers and experts. The knowing–doing divide had been with us since the time of Taylor, made famous by his time and motion studies that employed scientific methods to specify the best way for
workers to do the tasks they were assigned. For almost a hundred years, the accepted point of view in organizations was that “managers think, workers do.”
By 2000, there was a growing recognition that those on the front line had critical knowledge that was not being captured by the experts. If I had not known that before, my work with CompanyCommand confirmed that for me. For example, the war in Iraq changed so fast that there was no time for what was being learned to be vetted, then turned into doctrine and finally be sent back out to the troops. What saved lives and won battles was the immediate exchange of knowledge among those on the frontline. It was not only on the battlefield that the need for the immediate exchange began to manifest itself. In many rapidly changing industries (e.g. technology, pharmaceutical, intelligence) it was the front line that had the ground truth.
This recognition led to another significant change - the role of reflection in learning from experience. The US Army introduced the After Action Review (AAR), initially to learn from simulated battle, but soon recognized its value for course correction in the midst of real events. “Reflection in action” quickly moved into corporations. British Petroleum, one of the early leaders in knowledge management, implemented AARs. NASA implemented their own version they called Pause and Learn (PAL). These and other knowledge management processes, built into the workflow, brought frontline workers together to reflect on and learn from projects, events, and tasks.
Other workflow processes like facilitated knowledge harvests, Peer Assist and Retrospects, enabled the transfer of the knowledge between projects. What began to be understood was that for a team to share its knowledge with others, it first had to figure out for itself what it had learned. That only happened if the group had come together to reflect on what actions they had taken individually and collectively, what results that produced, and what that meant for going forward.
The question that management struggled with in Leveraging Experiential Knowledge was how much control they should exert over communities, reflection sessions or transfer events. Should reports from AARs be sent up the command chain and if so what would the impact be on candid reflection? Should managers establish a community’s goals for them in exchange for support? How far can an exchange, that is inherently informal, be formalized before it loses its value? Although clear cut answers to these questions has not emerged, a movement in the direction of reduced management control over content has been evident.
The analogy for the first era was the warehouse, the analogy for the second era is the network. The exchange is reciprocal, the assumption being that each person in the network is at times both an originator of knowledge that is shared with others and a recipient of others’ knowledge. This reciprocal exchange reduced much of the resistance to accepting the practices of others that occurred with the dissemination model.
The downsides to Leveraging Experiential Knowledge began to become evident around 2005:
• Leveraging Experiential Knowledge was largely focused on the front line. Middle management for the most part was ignored, as was senior management. There were few processes for middle or senior managers to learn with and from each other or through reflection or transfer processes.
• Network exchanges successfully moved knowledge between peers, those at roughly the same level in the organization- lateral transfer. However, there was little flow between hierarchical levels, for example, between managers and front line workers, which precluded different levels from taking the knowledge of other levels into account.
• The knowledge that was exchanged was primarily about the tactical level of work. The strategic level was not addressed within Leveraging Experiential Knowledge. So a team or project could use reflection processes or communities to improve how they were meeting their goals, but if the goals themselves were in the wrong direction, the model provided no way to find that out.
• The increased complexity of organizations was not addressed in the second category, nor were the influences of the external environment.
None of these important issues could be addressed through the conceptual framework that supported the second era. It will take reframing what organizational knowledge is, yet again, to move to the third category, Leveraging Collective Knowledge. Part three will address those changes.