In 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)