Is there a problem here?

Solving a problem that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Unfortunately – or, if you prefer, fortunately – many of the problems that are worth solving, that need to be solved, don’t come with that level of certainty.

In his book, How Life Imitates Chess (which, by the way, I highly recommend), Garry Kasparov has this to say about uncertainty:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”

 

What if your organization functioned like a video game

My earlier post on games got me digging through my archives (yet again), where I found two posts looking at knowledge management and knowledge work through the lens of games. Both of these posts are based on James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

This second post looks at the role affinity groups play in learning through video games, and compares this to how many organizations work.

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Although James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is primarily about how individuals, especially kids, learn, there is a lot in the book that can be applied to how organizations learn. This list describes what Gee sees as common features of what he calls affinity groups and their implications. Those familiar with knowledge management concepts will recognize these as traits of a good community of practice.

  1. Members of an affinity group bond to each other primarily through a common endeavor and only secondarily through affective ties, which are, in turn, leveraged to further the common endeavor. Implication: Affective ties and sociocultural diversity can be dangerous, because they divide people if they transcend the endeavor, good otherwise.
  2. The common endeavor is organized around a whole process (involving multiple but integrated functions), not single, discrete, or decontexualized tasks. Implication: No rigid departments, borders, or boundaries.
  3. Members of the affinity group have extensive knowledge, not just intensive knowledge. By “extensive” I mean that members must be involved with many or all stages of the endeavor; able to carry out multiple, partly overlapping, functions; and able to reflect on the endeavor as a whole system, not just their part in it. Implication: No narrow specialists, no rigid roles.
  4. In addition to extensive knowledge, members each have intensive knowledge – deep and specialist knowledge in one or more areas. Members may well also bring special intensive knowledge gained from their outside experiences and various sociocultural affiliations (e.g. their ethnic affiliations) to the affinity group’s endeavors. Implication: Non-narrow specialists are good.
  5. Much of the knowledge in an affinity group is tacit (embodied in members’ mental, social, and physical coordinations with other members and with various tools, and technologies), and distributed (spread across various members, their shared sociotechnical practices, and their tools and technologies), anddispersed (not all on site, but networked across different sites and institutions). Implication: Knowledge is not first and foremost in heads, discrete individuals, or books but in networks of relationships.
  6. The role of leaders in affinity groups is to design the groups, to continually resource them, and to help members turn their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, while realizing that much knowledge will always remain tacit and situated in practice. Implications: Leaders are not “bosses,” and only knowledge that is made explicit can be spread and used outside the original affinity group.

As most of us know all too well, most organizations today operate in ways very different from how these, often self-forming, groups operate. Some thoughts, item by item:

  1. The common endeavor in most organizations is dictated from the top down. Members of the organization don’t usually join the organization because of the ‘endeavor,’ rather they accept the endeavor because they have joined the organization.
  2. In most organizations (in my experience), specific functions are highly structured into departments and sub-departments. Successful cross-functional activity is the exception rather than the rule.
  3. Because of the highly structured nature of organizations, most people know only their area. Because the ‘endeavor’ is not their own, there is very little incentive to understand the ‘big picture.’ Those who do try to understand the big picture are often seen as ’stepping out of their lane’ and put back in their place. After all, how can they be doing their job if they are worrying about what someone else is doing.
  4. This is what most organizations expect of their members – a high skill level in their specific area.
  5. More and more organizations are recognizing the tacit nature of knowledge and the value of network relationships is sharing information. More than any of the other items in this list, it is this area that is receiving much of the attention in the field of knowledge management. It is hard, though, for individuals and organizations to get over the cultural expectation of knowing everything yourself, the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome, and the sharing – freely – of what you know with others so they can be successful.
  6. Most ‘leaders’ are still just bosses.

Looking back over my list, I think I may be a bit pessimistic, but I’ve been involved with knowledge management, social networking, etc. for almost 10 years now and am still amazed, and frustrated, at how many organizations still don’t get it. Those who know me know that I’m really a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I must admit that I do hold out hope that things will change.

Maybe it will just take the current generation of young gamers, Marc Prensky’s digital natives, to finally get us there.

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Knowledge work, video games, and learning

My earlier post on games got me digging through my archives (yet again), where I found two posts looking at knowledge management and knowledge work through the lens of games. Both of these posts are based on James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

This first post looks at the learning aspects of knowledge management and knowledge work. It could use a little updating, especially the part about “managing tacit knowledge” (which we all know can’t be managed), but I’m still pleased with it overall.

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After reading (and writing aboutMarc Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning!, I picked up James Paul Gee’sWhat Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. I was expecting a book about video games and the potential ‘good’ they offered. And the book does discuss this.

But the book is really about how video games are an example of how good learning can be enabled, encouraged, and accomplished in any environment. His area of choice is K-12 science education, but the learning principles – 36 of them– can be applied in many other areas.

In fact, Gee compares the environment that players of modern computer and video games inhabit to the world of what is commonly known as knowledge work. In the process, Gee describes a couple of key concepts and processes that those who work in the field of knowledge management will be familiar with.

Because Gee looks at these topics from the perspective of learning, his depictions are a bit different from what I’ve typically seen. For example, here is how Gee describes ‘tacit knowledge‘ (emphasis is mine):

Finally, the Intuitive (Tacit) Knowledge Principle is concerned with the fact that video games honor not just the explicit and verbal knowledge players have about how to play but also the intuitive or tacit knowledge – built into their movements, bodies, and unconscious ways of thinking – they have built up through repeated practice with a family of genre of games. It is common today for research on modern workplaces to point out that in today’s high-tech and fast-changing world, the most valuable knowledge a business has is the tacit knowledge its workers gain through continually working with others in a “community of practice” that adapts to specific situations and changes “on the ground” as they happen. Such knowledge cannot always be verbalized. Even when it can be verbalized and placed in a training manual, by that time it is often out of date.

What stood out to me was the emphasis on the importance of the “community of practice” in the development of an individual’s tacit knowledge and the fact that tacit knowledge is dynamic, never fixed. Tacit knowledge is, in my experience, typically addressed as something unique to an individual, something static. And while it is true, I suppose, that individuals do possess a certain amount of truly unique knowledge that never changes, to be useful most tacit knowledge must be flexible enough to be useful as the individual interacts with the environment.

A key challenge in the field of knowledge management is how to manage this tacit knowledge. Understanding both the individual and social nature of tacit knowledge is an important consideration to keep in mind. In fact, the social aspect, the tacit knowledge of the group if you will, may well be more important than the tacit knowledge of any one individual.

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Does your organization need a neurologist?

When addressing the idea of tacit knowledge in respect to knowledge management, most descriptions focus on the tacit knowledge IN organizations – that is, the tacit knowledge of the individual members of the organization – and how to capture and share that tacit knowledge. While I believe it is important to understand this tacit knowledge, I’ve always been more attracted to an understanding of the tacit knowledge OF an organization, what it is the organization as a whole ‘knows.’

As with individuals, organizations operate based on the tacit knowledge they possess and their ability to act on that knowledge when needed. In the human brain it is the connections between neurons – and the ability of the brain to reorganize those connections to meet the situation – that makes up the intelligence and tacit knowledge of the individual. In organizations, it is the connections between people. (see this post of mine from 2006 for a bit more on this.)

Many years ago, in one of my first ever blog posts, I wrote that “KM is the neuroscience of an organization.” After reading Is Enterprise 2.0 the neuro-organization? a couple of days ago, and a brief discussion with Harold Jarche (@hjarche), I was once again curious.

Here’s a start. (Definitions from Wikipedia)

Neurology: a medical specialty dealing with disorders of the nervous system. Specifically, it deals with the diagnosis and treatment of all categories of disease involving the central, peripheral, and autonomic nervous systems, including their coverings, blood vessels, and all effector tissue, such as muscle.  –>OD ?

Neuroscience: the scientific study of the nervous system, the scope of neuroscience has broadened to include different approaches used to study the molecular, developmental, structural, functional, evolutionary, computational, and medical aspects of the nervous system. –> KM?  IT?

Psychology: the scientific study of human or animal mental functions and behaviors, psychologists attempt to understand the role of mental functions in individual and social behavior, while also exploring underlying physiological and neurological processes.  –> OD? Training/Learning?

Psychiatry: the medical specialty devoted to the study and treatment of mental disorders—which include various affective, behavioural, cognitive and perceptual disorders; mental disorders are currently conceptualized as disorders of brain circuits likely caused by developmental processes shaped by a complex interplay of genetics and experience.  –> HR?

Way off base? On the right track?

Retaining knowledge in organizations – a contrary view

Yesterday’s #kmers chat focused on the topic Retaining the Knowledge of People Leaving your Organization.  Quite a bit of discussion around the topic, including questions about whether you should try to capture knowledge from those leaving, how you should do it, etc. etc.  Personally, I agree with V Mary Abraham (@vmaryabraham) when she says:

Ideally, move to system of #observable work. Then people disclose info & connections as they work & before they leave.

That way, the knowledge that is shared is in the context of a current action and not just information sitting in a repository somewhere.

This is a question that I – and many others – have wrestled with for many years now. Here is something I originally posted in Sep 2004 on the question. This is an unedited copy of that original post; I may come back later and give it a fresh coat.

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For many years now I’ve read about and been involved in discussions about the impending retirement of baby boomers, the effect this will have on institutional memory, and what can be done about it. Most of my interest in this at the time concerned the impact on the federal government workforce, which will be very hard hit since the retirement age is a bit lower than the populace in general.

Though I’ve not yet read it, the book Lost Knowledge by Dave DeLong addresses this problem in great detail (more on the book can be found here, here, and here). A snippet from the book’s website:

Dr. David DeLong, a research fellow at MIT’s AgeLab, has just created the first comprehensive framework to help leaders retain critical organizational knowledge despite an aging workforce and increased turnover among mid-career employees.

Like most discussions of the topic I’ve been involved in, the book seems to focus on the negative aspects of people leaving, and taking their knowledge with them. However, I have been reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and think that we may be missing out on an opportunity to actively reinvent the corporate knowledge as we try, probably in vain, to keep the old knowledge around.

Granted, there is some information and there are many processes that must be recorded and retained. This the basic infrastructure of how an organization functions. But if you simply take the knowledge of people who are leaving and transfer that to the people that are replacing them, you are effectively eliminating the value of the “new blood” coming into the organization. Or, in the words of Surowiecki, you are maintaining homogeneity at the expense of diversity.

Organizational memory, like human memory, can be a stubborn thing to change and often results in the this is how we’ve always done it syndrome. An excellent description of memory formation can be found in Tony Buzan’s The Mind Map Book (sorry for the lengthy quote, but it bears repeating in whole):

Every time you have a thought, the biochemical/electromagnetic resistance along the pathway carrying that thought is reduced. It is like trying to clear a path through a forest. The first time is a struggle because you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. The second time you travel that way will be easier because of the clearing you did on your first journey. The more times you travel that path, the less resistance ther will be, until, after many repetitions, you have a wide, smooth track which requires little or no clearing. A similar function occurs in your brain: the more you repeat patterns or maps of thought, the less resistance there is to them. Therefore, and of greater significance, repetition in itself increases the probability of repetition (original emphasis). In other words, the more times a ‘mental event’ happens, the more likely it is to happen again.

When you are trying to learn something, this is obviously a good thing. However, the very nature of this learning process makes it more difficult to learn something new, especially if it is very different (“off the beaten path”). By pointing new people down the paths of the people that are retiring, you are ensuring that the well known paths will continue to thrive and that it will be harder to create new paths through the forest.

That’s fine if your goal is to continue on the path you are on, but it brings to mind an old proverb I saw somewhere: If you don’t change the path you are on, you’ll end up where it takes you.

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How can I join the conversation?

“Keep me in the loop.”

This all too common expression is – or should be – the bane of anyone trying to implement, or just use, a social media approach to collaboration and communication. What it really means is…

“I want to know what’s going on with your project, but I don’t care enough to actually spend my own time keeping up with what’s going, so please take time out of your own busy schedule and figure out what information I need to know and then make sure you get it to me. I may or may not bother to read it once you’ve sent it to me.”

The next time someone asks you to “keep me in the loop”, let them know where the conversation is happening and offer to grant them access. If they don’t take you up on it, then they don’t really care. If they do take you up on it, they may never join in. But they might, and their participation will be that much more valuable because they are there intentionally, not accidentally.

Of course, this goes both ways. Next time someone talks to you about a project that you are interested in, don’t ask them to keep you in the loop. Instead, ask them, “How can I join the conversation?”

What we need are knowledge curators, not managers

The concept of “knowledge curator” has been creeping slowly from the back of my mind to the front over the past couple of years, and received a couple of jolts over the weekend that resulted in one of those elusive “aha moments”.

What we need are curators of knowledge,
not managers of knowledge.

First, I noticed the blurb “curated content from Flickr” when I used the Flickr module on a Squidoo lens.

Second was a quote from Liz Danzico (that I found via Signal vs. Noise blog).

A portfolio of work is a curated experience. … but oftentimes, a portfolio only contains final pieces, as applicants are overly concerned about presenting perfection. Polish doesn’t communicate process though, and therefore I’m left with only part of the story. Messy problems — and how applicants work through them — can show a great deal more in a portfolio than one finished, airtight solution.

I didn’t know it at the time,but this all started back in November 2005 with an article titled Technology makes it easy to ‘remember,’ the trick is learning how to forget, in which I wrote:

My early days in Knowledge Management included a lot of time developing, deploying, and getting people to use “knowledge repositories.” (At least trying to get people to use them.) … I finally realized one day that the problem has become not, “How do we remember all this knowledge that we’ve learned?” but rather, “How do we forget all this knowledge we’ve accumulated that we no longer need so we can focus on what we do need?”

I also noted a quote from the book The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins related to the need to “eliminate” memories:

Memory is a toxin, and its overretention – the constant replaying of the past – is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad.

It was this latter quote that was in my mind last summer when, in The importance of forgetting,  I wrote about John Medina’s thoughts on the question of memory and forgetting in Brain Rules:

The last step in declarative processing is forgetting. The reason forgetting plays a vital role in our ability to function is deceptively simple. Forgetting allows us to prioritize events. Those events that are irrelevant to our survival will take up wasteful cognitive space if we assign them the same priority as events critical to our survival.

As I noted then, this is no less true in the organizational context of knowledge/concept work.

Simply capturing everything in document repositories and best practices, without the ability to forget – or supercede – any of it, takes up a lot of “cognitive space” that organizations could be putting to other wise good use.

The trick is figuring out how to forget, and how to figure out what to forget.