Knowledge leverage and information creation in the enterprise

July 24, 2009

KM_Post_Quinn_AnyaIn my posts on the Enterprise-wide Information System (EIS) and articles on the Lean Intranet I talk about the role that knowledge  should play in the enterprise. Apart from James Robertson you don’t hear many intranet commentators mention ‘knowledge’, yet no organization can function without  the knowledge held in staff member’s heads and the shared knowledge that constitute the informal systems that are often at the heart of an organization’s success. If organizations don’t consider knowledge as part of their overall information strategy then they are missing a very big opportunity to improve their processes through the innovative ideas of their staff. They are also in danger of letting important knowledge walk out the door when employees leave.

It is my belief that intranet and internal communications workers should be contributing to the knowledge debate, especially when it comes to knowledge in the workplace, if only to ensure that a simple, practical approach is arrived at that can be of value in the enterprise. In this post I will try to outline such an approach in the hope that knowledge issues in the workplace might start to get attention I think they deserve.

The two strands of ‘knowledge management’

Some years ago I had the unfortunate task of researching knowledge management for an MSc and I was left totally bewildered at the plethora of different approaches, terms and, if I’m honest, academic nonsense that went under the guise of Knowledge Management (KM). Apart from some of Nonaka’s approaches, which I talk about below, and a few others there was very little that I could identify as being of real, practical use in the workplace.

The phrase ‘knowledge management’ has, in the UK at least, been hijacked by IT functions and has come to infer something different than what may have been originally intended.  I feel that for this reason that we can no longer use the phrase ‘knowledge management’ as it has become inalterably linked in many people’s minds with IT functions. This means that we must find another way of referring to the process of levering and codifying knowledge in the workplace.

My candidate term is ‘knowledge leverage and information creation’ or simply KLIC. It may sound a little long but there is a reason for this as I explain below.

Classifications of knowledge

As I stated above I found some of Nonaka’s approaches to be illuminating and useful. In the Harvard Review in 1991, Nonaka provided a classification for types of knowledge. This has now become common currency and is a good way of  thinking about knowledge. At the highest level knowledge exists as -

  • Tacit – knowledge that only exists in someone’s head
  • Explicit – knowledge that has been documented in some way, allowing others to share or, in other words, information

Nonaka states that knowledge may be transformed in four ways -

  • Tacit to tacit – people talking to each other or demonstrating how things are done (socialisation)
  • Tacit to explicit – documenting tacit knowledge by writing it down or recording it in some other way (externalisation)
  • Explicit to explicit – where explicit information is re-shaped e.g. a book into a film or the writing down of recorded voices (combination)
  • Explicit to tacit – when someone reads or views information and turns it into tacit knowledge e.g. school, training courses, reading (internalisation)

So there you have it – two types and four transformations. I have found this way of looking at knowledge to be simple and logical and, as such, it lends itself well to describing knowledge interactions in the workplace.

What is ‘knowledge levering’?

Nonaka and Takeuchi in their ground breaking book ‘The Knowledge Creating Company’ admit that the creation of new knowledge ‘boils down to the conversion of tacit to explicit knowledge’.  That’s basically finding out what people know and writing it down. This doesn’t sound like rocket science to me.

It seems to me that we  have become far too reliant on the paradigm that progress must be inalterably linked to more and more complex technologies. There might be a case for this with regard to internet sites and applications where a site somehow needs to reach out and connect with a niche market embedded in billions of faceless people, but we know our users, they are all around us. No interaction can be as information rich as a face to face encounter with another human.  It has been surmised that one of the reasons that our brains have grown so big is to enable us to read facial expressions and body language that say so much more than words. For this reason levering knowledge is an exercise that can only be done face to face.

I have been involved in ‘knowledge levering’ for many years. For most of those years I had no idea that this was what I was doing. As part of my Quality work I had to talk to staff in order to identify the informal methods they used and then write this up as a process or procedure. In other words ‘externalisation’ (tacit to explicit knowledge). Once all of the key tacit knowledge areas were made explicit we were able to see how all these informal processes could be linked up and improved.  The process of levering knowledge I used is very simple and the only real qualification for those carrying out this activity is that they must be ‘people’ people. In other words they need to be able to listen and effectively communicate with staff at all levels within an organization in order to get the maximum value from the exercise.

In order to find out what knowledge you will need to lever you must first carry out a knowledge gap analysis or ‘information audit’. This need not be too complicated or time consuming especially if a kaizen approach is used and the exercise is carried out over time. Look for key areas within your organization and try to identify what information exists that describes what staff do. Does it exist? If it does is it adequate and up to date? There is an important point that must be considered when it comes to levering knowledge. A fine balance has to be struck between how much needs to be made explicit, ensuring that important information is maintained within an organization, and how much is left tacit ensuring that staff have the human right to customize and improve some activities.

..and ‘information creation’?

So OK we’ve managed to sit down with our staff and note down key aspects of the tacit knowledge they hold but this is only half of the exercise. The reason why I’ve used the term ‘knowledge leverage and information creation’ is because it should always remind us that there are two aspects that must always be considered. Noting down tacit knowledge is part of ‘knowledge levering’ but turning those notes into information will require much more work. The notes will need to be worked up into a logical document and then assessed to see where it fits into and/or affects information currently held within the intranet or other information management systems (see my posts on the Enterprise-wide Information System). The affect of this assessment may mean that information gained may need to be amended or indeed that information currently held elsewhere may need to be amended.

If ‘information‘ can be considered as contextualised data formatted for a particular audience then you will also need to consider who the audience actually is, what the best format might be for that audience and where the information might best be stored so that the target audience can easily access it.

That’s basically it

The basic thrust of this post is to get intranet workers thinking about knowledge issues for I feel that in the future this may become an important part of what they do. I also sense sometimes when I mention ‘knowledge’ to intranet workers that they consider that it must be some esoteric and complex area of human discourse to which they cannot contribute or fully understand.

This, of course, is a nonsense as we do it all the time. I internalise knowledge when I look at the news which I do first thing every morning. Knowledge is socialised when I ask one of my work colleagues the football scores from the night before. When I write down notes from a meeting with my boss I am externalising knowledge. And I combine knowledge when I take a quote from someone else and insert it in my blog.

Globalisation and the freer flow of information brought about by the internet has had the effect of levelling the playing field and eroding the competitive edge of many organizations. Using knowledge leverage and information creation techniques in the workplace will retain important knowledge, improve processes and provide innovative ideas and solutions. For most organizations considering knowledge has, in my opinion, just moved from being a luxury to a necessity.

I have also created an enterprise knowledge methodology which explains how knowledge in your organization fits into the big picture.

In Part 2 I provide a detailed methodology for achieving knowledge leverage and information creation in the workplace.

(Thanks to quinn.anya for the wonderful Flickr CC photo)

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19 Responses to “Knowledge leverage and information creation in the enterprise”


  1. […] Knowledge leverage and information creation in the enterprise […]


    • Hi David,

      You’re right about the potential for imperfect knowledge transfer when tacit knowledge is converted to explicit.

      However, I wouldn’t talk about “experts”, but about “shared context”. The degree of fidelity in knowledge transfer largely depends upon factors such as having common experiences and a agreed use of language. If people have close experiences and language (eg they work in the same team), they will have a larger shared context and thus can exchange knowledge via explicit means more effectively.

      From the perspective of an organisation, of course, it doesn’t matter whether knowledge is tacit or explicit. What matters is whether the organisation:

      – will survive disruptive changes such as staff turnover
      – can use the knowledge of its employees individually and collectively to adapt, evolve and innovate

      In terms of your 100 person organisation, I suspect a formal audit isn’t necessary unless you are new — you probably know most of the wrinkles of the org already.

      If you know of a KM weakness in your org that should be fixed, perhaps for a small team, I would suggest trying to implement a solution that specifically fixes that. But make sure you design the solution so that it can be adapted or expanded later on if necessary!

      • patrick c walsh Says:

        Stephen.
        Thanks for the comments. I used the word ‘experts’ as in most organizations I’ve worked in we refer to some content owners (especially the esoteric stuff) as ‘subject experts’. However I agree that ‘shared context’ is a better way of putting it.

        However I do think that it should matter to organizations whether knowledge is tacit or explicit – that’s the main problem. I have seen organizations damaged when key staff have left taking valuable knowledge with them. Even worse when they leave for a competitor.
        I also find it hard to envisage a situation where an organization can effectively evolve and innovate without knowledge being made explicit and shared.

        I find myself in a similar situation to when I first started out in Quality some thirty years ago. Then there were lots of definitions flying around and disagreements especially when academics got involved. However the only things that have proved to be of any lasting value and that has led to Quality becoming subsumed into many organizational activities have been the practical tools and techniques that actually made a difference. This is what David, myself and many others really need. Practical tools and techniques, stripped of all flim-flammery, that can be used by most people in most organizational settings.

        Er….any ideas anyone????

        Patrick

  2. Jed Says:

    Hello matey, long time no comment, although I have still been reading everything – honest !

    I too did a very theoretical ‘Managing Knowledge’ module as part of my MBA. Lots of Nonaka and Takeuchi, and I used to be a big fan of SECI, but I have to say I am not any more. I have to say I am one of those people who considers ‘Knowledge Management’ to be an oxymoron, even though I am now working as a ‘Senior Specialist’ in a KM Group ! I guess you could say I am a bit of a fan of David Gurteen, and even more so of Dave Snowden. I like their practical approach to KM, and their exploration of ‘Web 2.0′ tools to enable practical KM (blogs, wikis etc).

    I have to say I agree with Dave Snowden that the old data -> Information -> Knowledge -> Wisdom progression is tosh, and that ‘knowledge’ is always tacit as it resides in our heads, it requires a synthesis of available information and our previous experience. As such I believe the key to a “knowledge enabled” organization is a good Enterprise Information Management – totally in agreement with your concept of the EIS and the part an intranet should play in it, whether that is traditional intranet publishing, or more recent intranet based collaboration.

    Your also absolutely right to point out that ‘KM’ is a broad discipline and should not be hi-jacked by IT, see the link for a diagram which is my take on it:

    http://ecm-stuff.blogspot.com/2009/02/where-ecm-fits-in-bigger-information.html

    Kudos for stimulating some debate :-)

    Cheers

    Jed

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Jed,
      Many thanks as always for your comments. Nice to know that I’m not the only who thinks ‘knowledge management’ is an oxymoron!
      You are right that there is a of of tosh around KM. I think that a lot of information/intranet workers are really bemused by the whole thing and yet it is something we do naturally everyday. Whatever the esoteric musings of pychologists are on the subject I think that the people on the ground need some simple, practical tools and techniques, as well as some clear definitions, to ensure that they don’t miss out on the opportunity to improve their organisation’s processes and increase innovation.
      I loved your KM graphic (http://ecm-stuff.blogspot.com/2009/02/where-ecm-fits-in-bigger-information.html) and saw it when you first posted in February. If I’m absolutely honest, I’m not sure that this wasn’t what started me thinking about KM again as its been bubbling in my head for some time! So the responsiblity for the post may me mostly yours!

      In that case I’ll be sure to forward any negative comments to you for a response ;-)

      Patrick

  3. Vivek Thiagarajan Says:

    Hi Patrick,

    I have been waiting to read your Knowledge/ Information creation article since I read your response to my earlier comment. I had various ideas crossing my brain the moment you said you were working on an article debating the knowledge and IT crossover. Now, I finally got to read the whole piece.

    You have defined the tacit, explicit part very well making it easy to follow and also putting the internalising and externalising knowledge into perspective. Thank you for the great effort!

    From my experience, I must say that I faced similar situations where people jump to assume that my job(in Knowledge Management) falls within IT. This happens whenever I try to explain what my job is.

    While I was talking to one of my colleagues who was probably hearing about knowledge management for the first time, our discussion led to the following definition – “Knowledge Management is about organizing all the information about what we do and what we can do.”
    What I found from the above is that it’s centered around ‘Information’.

    I would like to cite another example where defining the area of KM is important. I was reporting to a partner within the consulting function of one of the big four audit firms. He is considered to be one of the wisest consultants in the firm. He had once created a position which I filled. He carefully defined the role as Information Management although many would have generally understood as ‘Knowledge Management’. According to him, the role did not cover all aspects of KM. That is when I started to distinguish different roles within KM. I believe that KM is spread over a larger landscape of roles in an organisation with numerous touch points.

    I have a comment on the picture you chose for the Blog as well: I don’t mean to offend or criticize your choice, but would just like to mention that in many cultures across the world Books/scriptures are considered sacred or are respected as they are sources of knowledge hence equated with divinity. Stamping them with one’s feet would symbolize disrespect. Some people might get offended on seeing the image.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Vivek,
      Thanks for your comments. I think you make an important point and it confirms something I said in the post.

      KM, for me, is a term that I can no longer associate directly with knowledge or information as it has been devalued by being adopted by IT roles. I think that information/intranet workers who are at the sharp end need to talk to each other, share good practice and to come up with our own definitions otherwise the ‘knowledge’ area which has so much to offer, will always be just a place where academics can throw mud pies at each other rather than being of real practical use in the workplace.

      Thanks for your tip on the photo. I will change it for two reasons – it was not my intention to offend anyone and I absolutely love the viewpoint that books (and therefore information) should be so revered. If only it were thus in many organisations!

      Patrick

  4. Jed Says:

    Wow, I am suitably honored sire !

    I too love Vivek’s point about the cultural sensitivities of books, and your response, it reminded me of that scene in the Indiana Jones movie where they are at some Nazi rally in Germany and they are all burning books.

    Your absolutely spot on when you say if we could only get information, and those that manage it and steward it to the position of reverence it and they deserve within organizations we would all be better off ! :-)

  5. David Says:

    Hello Patrick,

    Thanks for the article.

    As one fairly young in the study of KM and social media, I find it interesting that our understanding of information as it relates to knowledge, as well as how/when tacet knowledge is transferred keep changing. It seems there is new theory everywhere I look. Your understanding seems easy to digest. Your reference to the Harvard Business Review and Nonaka’s works are helpful. Thank you.

    Questions: Whether tacit knowledge is written down or spoken, doesn’t it in both cases become explicit? Specifically, as soon as it leaves the speakers lips it becomes explicit. And without the receiver having context and experience to be coupled with that explicit knowledge, the explicit doesn’t become necessarily become tacit does it?

    Wouldn’t that mean that the capture of tacit knowledge is truly impossible unless the interchange is between experts in their common field?

    Thanks for letting a novice chime in.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      David,
      Many thanks for your comments. I have completed an MSc of which ‘knowledge’ research was a major part. I have tried to keep up with the ‘knowledge’ debate and with what some of the knowledge gurus are saying. I feel (almost) totally confused and still feel a complete novice myself.

      I read a paper some years ago which I will have to dig up where they discuss the attributes of knowledge, data and information. I liked the way they distinguished between these three as (I think) –
      ‘knowledge’ always and only exists inside people’s heads
      ‘data’ was knowledge made explicit (shareable) in some way
      ‘information’ was formatted, accessible data in context

      To answer your main point it is possible to capture tacit knowledge even if you don’t fully understand it! Under the above definition it would be considered data. If this was then contextualised using other experts it then becomes information. I cover this very point in my post on intranets and technical stuff http://patrickcwalsh.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/intranet-content-dealing-with-the-technical-stuff/

      But you make a very important point about new theory coming at you from all angles. In the enterprise setting what we should be doing is agreeing amongst ourselves simple, workable definitions, tools and techiques that can be of real practical use in the workplace. If we don’t do this all ‘knowledge’ will continue to be IMHO is mostly an ongoing debate akin to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!

      You say you are ‘young’ with regard to KM. My only advice is take everything you read with a pinch of salt!

      Best of luck

      Patrick

    • Jed Says:

      Hi David

      I did a theoretical module on ‘managing knowledge’ as part of my MBA, very much based on Nonaka and Takeuchi and SECI, and lots of Brown et al on ‘sense making’.

      I really liked the Nonaka approach until I went to my first conference and was thoroughly entertained by Dave Snowden as he completely ripped it apart :-)

      Now our host Patrick might not agree with everything Dave suggests, but I would say go and take a look at his articles which are available for free here:

      http://www.cognitive-edge.com/articlesbydavesnowden.php

      Enjoy the reading !

      • David Says:

        Thanks, Patrick and Jed. As an engineer, I find this “moving target” of definitions and understanding to be a bit unsettling. I enjoy the debate, but when it comes to taking action to improve the way an organization interacts and innovates, the debate doesn’t help the cause.

        Case in point:
        I am in a unique situation: our small organization (~100) and key leadership are “fertile ground” for KM improvement and support. They are looking to me and one other engineer for suggestions since I’ve expressed the most interest.

        I’m wondering simply, is it best to slowly introduce a few (pilot) tools from the “toolbox” to improve our sharing and collaboration and fine-tune what we are doing well (i.e., sharepoint for doc control, lessons learned, exit interviews), or should we take a more formalized approach (which can be a much more expensive and drawn out process) by performing an assessment, formulating a strategy and risk loosing the opportunity of the captive audience?

        I apologize if this is not the correct forum to ask these questions, but I’ve read so much already, I’m in a dark place.

        Many thanks for insight and suggestions.

      • patrick c walsh Says:

        ‘…when it comes to taking action to improve the way an organization interacts and innovates, the debate doesn’t help the cause.’

        David IMHO you have hit the nail squarely on the head. I now regret even using Nonaka’s approach as it has some baggage atached and has (as usual) opened a big can of worms. Any approach has to be practical. That’s why I quoted Sam Johnson below ‘…knowledge which he cannot apply will make no man wise.’
        We need a very simple, practical and flexible approach for knowledge in the workplace which works. Just wish I could think of one!

        Patrick

        PS With regard to being in ‘a dark place’ with regards to ‘knowledge’ I sometimes feel that I am at the bottom of a deep dark pit with a candle and a box of matches. The matches are of course damp ;-)

  6. patrick c walsh Says:

    Just came across this quote from Samuel Johnson which everyone engaged in ‘knowledge’ activities should have tattooed on the backs of their hands –

    ‘Between falsehood and useless truth there is little difference. As gold which he cannot spend will make no man rich, so knowledge which he cannot apply will make no man wise.’

    This was from the ‘Idler’ No. 84 written in 1759. Nothing really changes :-)

  7. Jed Says:

    David

    I say “go for it” and do exactly what you say at the end of your post, concentrate on practical use of a tool you already have. One area where you might want to spend a little on consultancy – metadata. Get some small amount of specialist help, and it will pay off big style later on, especially with respect to SharePoint search and being able to find that lessons learned document.

    Hope that helps !

    Jed

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      David,
      I agree with Jed. Find out what already works well and how these knowledge activities map against each other. You should then be able to spot obvious gaps.
      But it is important with limited resources to prioritise and do things gradually (kaizen). Also try to manage expectations and explain to stakeholders that any knowledge initiative takes time

      Best of luck

      Patrick

  8. A Human Says:

    Clearly reading an article here that hits above my academic level, although I will aspire to write a worthy question.

    Can I ask how KLIC as a model which you nicely extend into 4 paradigms is a semantic reshuffle of the old “pure” and “applied”

    That there is knowledge and then there is the application of knowledge.

    I like very much the 4 paradigms you suggest around these two points could you replace Explicit to Explicit with Pure to Pure.

    Or is there a subtlety I am missing.

    Thankyou for posting your thoughts.

    Peace

    A Human

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      A Human,
      Thanks for your comments. Belive me there are no subleties that you are missing. In fact your comment and the other comments are making me think again about the whole approach!

      Watch this space

      Patrick


  9. […] able manage knowledge per se. And for a really interesting post on this see Patrick Welsh’s recent effort; I like this guy’s stuff as he really thinks things […]


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