Monday, 23 May 2022

Is that really tacit knowledge, or could it be cognitive bias?

Is that really Tacit Knowledge in your head, or is it just the Stories you like to tell yourself?


IMAGINATION by archanN on wikimedia commons
All Knowledge Managers know about the difference between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge (or at least they think they do!), and they know the difference between the undocumented knowledge you hold in your head, and documented knowledge which can be stored.   We often assume that the "head knowledge" (whether tacit or explicit) is the Holy Grail of KM; richer, more nuanced, more contextual and more actionable than the documented knowledge.

However the more I read about (and experience) cognitive bias and the failures of memory, the more suspicious I become of what we hold in our heads.

These biases and failures are tendencies 1) to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from good judgement, and 2) to remember (and forget) selectively and not always in accordance with reality. We all create, to a greater or lesser extent, our own internal "subjective reality" from our selective and flawed perception and memory. Some of this might be real knowledge, some might not.

Cognitive and memory biases include:

  • Confirmation bias, which leads us to take on new "knowledge" only when it confirms what we already think;
  • Gamblers fallacy, which leads us to think that the most recently gained knowledge is more important;
  • Post-investment rationalisation, which leads us to think that any costly decisions we made in the past must have been correct ("we spent a lot to learn that, so the knowledge must be correct");
  • Observational selection bias, which leads us to think that things we notice are more common that they are (like when you buy a yellow car, and suddenly notice how common yellow cars are);
  • Attention bias, where there are some things we just don't notice (see the Gorilla Illusions);
  • Memory transience, which is the way we forget details very quickly, and then "fill in the gaps" based on what we think should have happened;
  • Misattribution, where we remember things that are wrong;
  • Suggestibility, which is where we create false memories.

So some of those things in your head that you "Know" may not be knowledge at all. Some may be opinions which you have reinforced selectively, or memories you have re-adjusted to fit what you would have liked to happen, or suggestions from elsewhere that feel like memories. Some of them may be more like a story you tell yourself, and less like actual knowledge.

Do these biases really affect tacit knowledge? 

Yes they really do, and they can affect the decisions we make on the basis of that knowledge.  Chapter 10 of the 2015 World development Report, for example, looks at cognitive biases among development professionals, and makes for interesting reading.

While you would expect experts in the World Bank to hold a reliable store of tacit knowledge about investment to alleviate poverty, in fact these experts are as prone to cognitive bias as the rest of us. Particularly telling, for me, was the graph that compared what the experts predicted poor people would think, against the actual views of the poor themselves. 

The report identifies and examines 4 "decision traps" that affect the development professionals and influence the judgements that they make:

  • the use of shortcuts (heuristics) in the face of complexity; 
  • confirmation bias and motivated reasoning; 
  • sunk cost bias; and 
  • the effects of context and the social environment on group decision making.

And if the professionals of the World Bank are subject to such traps and biases, then there is no guarantee that the rest of us are any different.

So what is the implication?

The implication of this study, and many others, is that one person's "tacit knowledge" may be unreliable, or at best a mish-mash of knowledge, opinion, bias and falsehood. There is a risk that knowledge from one person's is unreliable, unless tested somehow. As Knowledge Managers, there are a number of things we can do to counter this risk.

  1. We can test Individual Knowledge against the knowledge of the Community of Practice. The World Bank chapter suggests the following: "group deliberation among people who disagree but who have a common interest in the truth can harness confirmation bias to create an efficient division of cognitive labor. In these settings, people are motivated to produce the best argument for their own positions, as well as to critically evaluate the views of others. There is substantial laboratory evidence that groups make more consistent and rational decisions than individuals and are less likely to be influenced by biases, cognitive limitations, and social considerations. When asked to solve complex reasoning tasks, groups succeed 80 percent of the time, compared to 10 percent when individuals are asked to solve those tasks on their own. By contrast, efforts to debias people on an individual basis run up against several obstacles, and when individuals are asked to read studies whose conclusions go against their own views, they find so many flaws and counterarguments that their initial attitudes are sometimes strengthened, not weakened". Therefore community processes such as Knowledge ExchangePeer Assist and general community discussion can be ideal ways to counter individual biases.
  2. We can routinely test community knowledge against reality. Routine application of reflection processes such as After Action review and Retrospect require an organisation to continually ask the questions "What was expected to happen" vs "What actually happened".  With good enough facilitation, and then careful management of the lessons, reality can be a constant self-correction mechanism against group and individual bias.
  3. We can test the knowledge against other viewpoints. Peer Assist, for example, can be an excellent corrective to group-think in project teams, bringing in others with potentially very different views. 
  4. We can combine individual memories to create a team memory. Team reflection such as Retrospect is more powerful than individual reflection, as the team notices and remembers more things than any individual can.
  5. We can codify knowledge. Lean as codified knowledge is, it at least acts as an aide memoire, and counteracts the effects of memory transience, misattribution and suggestibility. 
But maybe the primary thing we can do is to stop seeing individual tacit knowledge as being safe and reliable, and instead start to concentrate on the shared knowledge held within communities of practice.  

Think of knowledge as Collective rather than Individual, and you will be on the right track.

Monday, 16 May 2022

How do pilots ensure knowledge is reused?

One of the biggest challenges is knowledge re-use. How does the aviation industry address this challenge?


Image from wikimedia commons
I often refer to aviation as a successful example of knowledge management, with lessons captured from every accident and incident and provided to pilots in the form of checklists, or shared through site such as the Skybrary.

But how does the aviation industry address the issue of knowledge re-use? Why don't experienced pilots skip the checklist?

We know that this is a big challenge in other industries, and that experienced doctors, engineers, programmers and consultants often do not re-use knowledge, but rely instead on the knowledge they already have. 

How do you make sure that experienced airline pilots, with thousands of hours under their belt, stay disciplined and use the checklists, even after flying has become routine?


  • Because if they skip (the checklist) and it was not OK they can be fired and lose their license
  • In four years in an airline cockpit I only encountered 1 person who didn't respect checklists. Perhaps not coincidentally he did not make it through his probationary year and was fired 
  • Because if they skip it and it was not OK they could DIE
  • On commercial flights, key checklist items are forced by using a procedure call a "cross check". The one pilot must "challenge" another for those specific check list items. 
  • The cockpit consists of two people, one reading/actioning the checklist, the other one monitoring and checking/cross-checking. If you say: "Nah, no checklist today", your copilot is bound to say: "Sorry, but we have to!" 
  • The importance of a proper preflight is drilled into you by your primary instructor from day one in light aircraft, and that mentality carries through all the way up to heavy transport-category aircraft: You want to find any problems you can while you're on the ground, because if you take a problem into the air with you it's a decision you can quickly come to regret.
  • If you do it often enough, it becomes a habit. It then feels wrong to not run the checklist. 
  • You stay vigilant by having seen things go wrong.
  • Everyone expects everyone else to do the checklists properly and if you don't do it you will get called out. 
  • In an airline environment you will have recurrent check-rides every 6-12 months and captains will have line checks every year and proper checklist usage is among the most basic requirement to pass these checks.
  • Every year we sit through a day of crew resource management training and part of that day involves looking at past accidents and understanding what the first thing was that set the accident events in motion (pilot error!). These often serve as vivid examples of how bad things can get if you start ignoring the checklists (among other things) 
  • There are a few tricks that are used to stop you falling in to that "Yeah, everything will be fine" mindset and just skipping the checks 
    • Not doing the checks from memory, but actually doing them in reference to a physical check list. 
    • A prescribed order of checks, starting at a point on the aircraft and moving around methodically 
    • The fear of missing something, such as engine oil levels, which gets very serious once airborne. 
    • Once carrying passengers, especially nervous ones, they tend to feel safer when they've seen you PHYSICALLY checking the aircraft before flying it. 

We can see several factors at work here, including

  • a logical and emotional case for learning (we might die, our passengers might die, better to fix things on the ground, fear of missing something), 
  • peer pressure from the copilot (you will get called out) and passengers
  • you might lose your job if you skip it
  • an awareness of what might go wrong (looking at past accidents)
  • training (from day one, and every year)
  • audit (checkrides)
  • physical lists (not relying on memory)
  • logical lists (prescribed order of checks)
  • habit

Many of these can be transferred from the aviation sector into other sectors. You could imagine a company where the re-use of existing knowledge (in checklists or procedures or other guidance) was mandatory, trained, supported, checked, believed-in (perhaps through regular analysis of failures), audited and habitual.

I agree this is a long way from where many of us are at the moment, but it is a vision for how an industry can support the re-use of knowledge.

To finish, here is a personal story from the Stack Exchange thread of how one person re-learned the importance of checklists
  •  In my case, I learned the discipline to use a checklist for every action on every flight, the one time I decided not to use a checklist while taxiing from the fuel pump back to the parking ramp. It was winter, and a snowplow pulled up behind me, so I decided not to use the checklist in the interest of expediency (ha!). I primed the engine, checked the fuel valve, engaged the electrical system, keyed the starter, and the engine responded by firing up and then immediately dying. Repeat about a half-dozen times, at which point, I finally decided to use the checklist because something obviously wasn't right. Once again, primed the engine, checked the fuel valve, move the mixture to the rich posi-- Oh...I had left the mixture in the idle-cut-off position. Oops. I've used a checklist religiously ever since then ;)


Monday, 9 May 2022

At what point does Learning and Development take over from Knowledge Management?

Knowledge Management and L&D are both part of the spectrum for Organisational Learning. But where does one take over from the other?


This topic has been a point of discussion ever since KM began.  Where does KM end, and Learning and Development take over?

We can look at this through the lens of 70:20:10, with KM facilitating the 70%, L&D the 10%, and both facilitating the 20%  in the middle. Or we can look at it through the lens of Push and Pull and knowledge flow. L&D is primarily a Push model with one-way flow of knowledge to the user, while in KM everyone is a teacher (or a supplier of content, if you prefer) as well as a learner. 

Another way to look at the question is to consider the characteristics of the knowledge topics themselves. 


You can use the matrix above to characterise knowledge topics using two dimensions; the maturity of the topic (see here for an explanation of knowledge maturity) and the number of people who need the knowledge.  L&D requires corporate investment in creating eLearning and training courses, and is best suited for knowledge which is mature and so not likely to change on a monthly basis, and which has a large enough user-base to merit the investment.  You can develop some marvellous on-line material to distribute this knowledge, and if the topic is mature, you don't need to worry that the flow of knowledge is one-way, as there is not much to share that is new.

If on the other hand the Knowledge is evolving, changing and developing, you need the multi-way flow processes of KM, using knowledge from the users to continually improve the reference material. If there are many users of the knowledge, you are in Community of Practice territory. Knowledge can be shared between the CoP members, who can both use the knowledge and add knowledge of their own. The reference resources can be co-created on the community wiki and continuously updated with new experience. Creating an eLearning syllabus would be a waste of money, as it would be out of date in the first month.

Where there are few users of the evolving knowledge, a CoP solution may be too large-scale. Perhaps we need action learning, or a small group of interconnected experts acting as a global practice group. The focus here will be on knowledge creation as much as knowledge distribution.

The quadrant which is less clear is the bottom left quadrant above, where knowledge is mature (and thus we can focus on one-way knowledge flow) but there are too few users to merit investment in eLearning or formal training. Perhaps the answer here, of the knowledge topic is important enough, is to build the knowledge assets which will act as reference material, and maybe here KM and L&D can work together.

Of course the real world does not divide into simple quadrants, and knowledge topics are often on the boundaries between one quadrant and another, or even move across the boundaries as time goes by. This is why L&D and KM need to cooperate - the corporate universities and the knowledge management teams working together to map out the landscape of knowledge topics, and deciding between them how best to keep that knowledge fresh, current, accurate, accessible and easy to assimilate and use. 

But in general terms, we can say that L&D takes over from KM when the knowledge topic is mature enough to be stable, and when the user population is large enough to merit the investment.



Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Why warring personalities are crucial for innovation

Why were the Wright brothers the first to invent the aeroplane? Perhaps because there were two of them, and because they fought all the time.


Wilbur and Orville Wright, from wikimedia commons
Anyone who is interested in innovation should visit the Basadur Applied Creativity site. There you will find some very interesting models for the innovation cycle, but also a really useful model about the character traits required for innovation. They also offer an online (paid) service for assessing the creativity styles of your team.

Basadur recognise 4 main types of person needed for innovation:

  • The Generators are the big thinkers - the ones who spot a potential untapped area, a gap in the market, or a new innovation opportunity. They find problems.
  • The Conceptualisers are the ones who like to work with a problem until they fully understand the forces at work, and the possible ways in which the problem might be addressed. They understand problems.
  • The Optimisers are the people who like to look for solutions, and to fix things. They solve problems.
  • The Implementers are the people who like to get things done. They implement solutions.
You need all 4 types of people within the creativity cycle, if a problem-solving idea is to be created, understood, solved and implemented.

However these people are very different in outlook and working style, and friction between them is common. 

The Generators and Optimisers do not understand each other at all. Once is looking for problems, the other for solutions. They find each other frustrating to work with. The Conceptualisers and Implementers also are chalk and cheese. One is pressing for deadlines, the other saying "hang on, we don't understand what we are dealing with yet". Each is a source of huge exasperation for the other.

This is one of the reasons why lone creators are so rare; they tend to represent only one of the four types above, and therefore look at only one aspect of the innovation cycle. Innovation is a team activity, and to be successful you need a balanced and well managed team with LOADS of creative friction and tension.

And that may be why the Wright brothers won the race for powered flight. They were brothers, they had contrasting personalities, and they argued like anything.

According to Notable Biographies

"Their personalities were perfectly complementary; each provided what the other lacked. Orville was full of ideas and enthusiasms. Wilbur was more steady in his habits, more mature in his judgments, and more likely to see a project through".

And according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space museum

"Relying on each other's strengths and compensating for each other's weaknesses was crucial to their invention of the airplane. Neither probably could have achieved alone what they did as a team. “I like scrapping with Orv,” Wilbur said, “he’s such a good scrapper.” Heated discussions were a frequent and significant aspect of the Wrights’ creative process. Their ability to defend a position with genuine passion, while considering the other’s point of view, was essential to their inventive success".

Orville was a Conceptualiser, Wilbur was an Implementer, and they managed their creation tension through a brotherly bond, heated arguments, and passionate "scrapping".

The challenge for any innovation team leader is to create a team with similar diverse character traits,  to build a bond as strong as the Wright brothers', and to manage the heated arguments and scraps that will surely be necessary as part of the creative process.

If you can do this, maybe you too can match the same level of success the Wright brothers demonstrated.

Monday, 25 April 2022

KM and culture - interview with Dana Tessier on her recent book

 Culture is one of the major issues with KM implementation, as we have discussed regularly on this blog. A recent book, edited by Dana Tessier, throws new light on this topic, as discussed below. 


The book is entitled "Organizational Culture Strategies for Effective Knowledge Management and Performance" and can be ordered here. Use the code IGI50 at checkout for a 50% discount. 

I discussed the book with Dana, and our discussion is below. My questions are in bold.

Hello Dana; tell me about yourself, and how you came to edit this book? 

"I am a KM practitioner with over 10 years experience with a master's degree in Library Science from McGill University where I specialized in knowledge management. I happened upon the field of KM somewhat accidentally and I became fascinated by it and have always looked for opportunities to contribute to the community by sharing lessons learned and best practices, and this book is no exception. I began working on the book in the summer of 2020 and so while I was researching and preparing my proposal, the world was still reckoning with the Covid-19 pandemic and organizations were having to figure out how to operate in a rapidly changing environment. Many organizations needed to move to a remote and distributed way of working to keep people safe and this was straining their ways of working, and I began to see a rising need for KM. So the work felt very relevant to the time, and was also inspired by my own understanding and processing of how organizations were changing and what we needed to do to adapt". 

Why did you choose this particular topic? 

"While studying KM and implementing it, I became fascinated at how processes and procedures would be successful in one organization, and then completely fail in another. I started researching why this was happening and that is when I noticed how big an impact organizational culture can have on a KM strategy and I wanted to do more research in this area. I found that often organizational culture is one chapter within a book about KM, and for this book, I wanted organizational culture to be the through line". 

Tell me about the people you involved, and why you chose them?

"The authors are academics and KM practitioners from around the world with experience in different industries like technology, engineering, manufacturing, finance, and more. They were able to include stories about government agencies, public and private companies, as well as from small, emergent teams to large, complex organizations. It was important to me to include a variety of voices and experiences so that we could look at the problem from different angles and develop a broad and deep understanding of potential solutions. Just to mention a few of the authors;  Colin Furness - a professor at the University of Toronto - authored two chapters, one with Anindita Bose, and one with Dr. Chun Wei Choo.  Ian Fry has over 50 years of IT experience spanning many different sectors and organizations, and his chapter on lessons learned included several real-world examples from his work.  Leland Holmquest is currently the Communications and Change Management Lead at Microsoft, and I met while presenting on the same panel at KM World in 2016.  Leland wrote a chapter on Motivation. Kathleen Cauley & Kristy Popwell are my team members at Shopify and they authored a chapter about our experience replacing our internal wiki. Both are accomplished KM practitioners who hold Master's degrees in Information Studies from McGill University".

What new things came out from the book? What did you learn from the contents about KM culture, that you did not know before? 

"Organizational culture is the through line of this book, and each chapter looks at knowledge management strategies and best practices through the lens of organizational culture. While there are different ways to observe culture, one that stands out to me is celebration. What an organization chooses to celebrate, and how they celebrate can provide some great insight into their culture and what they value. A great way to integrate knowledge management into a culture will be by celebrating its activities and outcomes. 

"Also Leaders are incredibly important when working with organizational culture because employees will look to them for what behaviours they model, and they can easily reinforce behaviour change by what they reward. Renée López-Richer and Caroline Thompson wrote a chapter about the Knowledge Leader as a multiplier by leveraging findings from Liz Wiseman's book The Multipliers. This chapter provides some great insight for how leaders can effectively engage in knowledge management, and how they can encourage their teams' mindsets and behaviours which will be critical to influence the existing culture of the organization. 

"Also Rick Nucci and Steve Maynerick shared several best practices for creating a knowledge-driven culture in their chapter and this included several real-world examples from some great organizations. What I found especially helpful in this chapter is that it includes a maturity model so that organizations can understand where they are currently sitting and identify some critical next steps so they can continue their journey. While shifting cultures can be difficult, by identifying the current state and an appropriate next step, organizations are more likely to make a successful transition".

Were there common themes in the chapters? 

"Once I received all the chapters, I actually completely re-organized my plan for the order of the chapters and organized them into people, process, or technology. Without trying, I found that naturally the authors' findings were fitting into one of these categories. In the People section, the chapters focus on personal motivation, trust, leadership, and other interpersonal behaviours and structures to promote successful knowledge management. In the Process section, the chapters focus on methodologies for both implementing knowledge management strategies, as well as facilitating ongoing knowledge transfer and use. For the Technology section, these chapters focus different methodologies and tools, and the book ends with a case study about Shopify's lessons learned from rebuilding their company-wide wiki and is a great example of bringing together the different learnings from each section as they used the people, process, technology model as a way to set up their project team for success". 

What sort of consensus can you derive for the book about the best way to address cultural issues in KM? 

"The first most important thing is not to ignore organizational culture. I know a lot of leaders who want to move fast and in the face of all the disruption we are experiencing right now, they need to move fast. But you cannot ignore culture forever - it will catch up with you and impact your results one way or another. It is difficult to change culture and it takes time, and so understanding how to work with the existing culture, and make nudges to it over time is a great strategy unless there is a lot of executive and top level support for a bigger change strategy. Next, it is very important for the people impacted by the strategy to understand what is in it for them, and ideally, the tasks and activities being requested of them should help make them more successful within their role. Once people feel that sharing and using knowledge is critical to their success within the organization, they can hopefully be leveraged to solve other cultural issues as they come up".

 Who would you recommend this book for? 

"This book will benefit KM practitioners, business leaders, educators, and students. KM practitioners will be better equipped to build and implement KM strategies that effectively navigate culture and are more successful as a result. Business leaders will learn about the benefits of learning organizations and the different elements needed to deliver their intended outcomes. Educators will benefit from a rich discussion of knowledge management practices that includes real-world examples, and ultimately that will benefit students learning about knowledge management. This book furthers critical research on how organizations can thrive and adapt due to emerging global disruptions, and this will benefit the fields of information science, knowledge management, and business".

Thank you Dana




Tuesday, 19 April 2022

The 12 steps for implementing KM in a problem-focused way

One of the more effective ways to introduce Knowledge Management is through solving a series of business problems. Here is a 12 step approach to doing just that.

Image from wikimedia commons

I came across this paper by Ray Dawson, professor of KM at Loughborough University, proposing a 12-step approach to KM implementation based on the successive solution of a series of business problems. Ray illustrates his 12 steps with case studies of implementation of KM technologies.

A similar approach was implemented at Mars to great effect, and is one component of our favoured KM implementation strategy alongside a longer-term framework-based approach.

Here are Ray's 12 steps in bold, with my commentary.

  1. Undertake a problem audit to identify a recognised problem. Start by targeting a problem in the company that is manageable in size, knowledge-related, and also widely recognised by all staff concerned. 
  2. Find out how bad the problem is.  If there is a problem then there will be a cost as a result, and these cost figures give a baseline upon which a return on investment for KM can be measured. 
  3. Find a knowledge management solution in the context of the problem. 
  4. Check the cost of the proposed solution so you can calculate a business case.
  5. Check the value for each individual. A new knowledge management initiative has two stakeholder groups - it must have financial benefits to a company, but it must also give value to each individual employee that must make it work. 
  6. Get buy-in from management and individuals based on the business case for the identified problem alone. The knowledge management initiative must be “sold” to both management and users. 
  7. Involve the users in the solution. Users should be involved in the requirements process and design of the new KM approach. 
  8. Plan for systems operation as well as the implementation. Neglecting to plan for the operation of a system is likely to mean any initial success cannot be sustained. 
  9. Implement the solution 
  10. Evaluate the actual savings made. You can find many examples of such savings on this blog.
  11. Use the evidence of success to achieve a wider KM rollout and to get buy-in for new initiatives. This is the social proof aspect we discuss here. The solved problems act as proofs of concept and pilot projects for the wider initiative.
  12.  Use smaller knowledge management projects to build bigger projects.  Large projects can be broken down into smaller projects that can each be implemented with the first 11 steps of this knowledge management implementation methodology. In this way the company can work towards the larger integrated system to which it aspires. 

This is a very practical approach to KM implementation which we entirely endorse here at Knoco. The smaller problem-led pilots help build the KM structure brick by brick, and lead you towards implementation of a complete Knowledge Management Framework

Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Please review and comment on the draft new guide to the KM standard

 Over the past several months, a drafting team from the British Standards Institute has been writing a guide to the ISO KM standard. This guide is now available in early draft form for public review and comment.


The guide will become British Standard BSI 30402, and it provides guidance on the application of BSI/ISO 30401:2018, the management systems standard for Knowledge Management. It is designed to help those for whom ISO standards are unfamiliar, and provides guidance, suggestions and examples addressing each of the critical clauses in ISO 30401. 

At this stage the guide is very much a draft.

It is a committee draft, and has been agreed by the BSI committee as suitable for public review, in order to gather early feedback and suggestions. This review version is available online until June 13 via the link below, after which we will consider all comments, and look to improve the guide as a result. 


Click on the link above. You will need to register with BSI before you can see the text, and once you have registered you can scroll the through the guide and add comments. Comments should be one of three types:
  • Editorial, related to spelling, grammar, and the way sentences and paragraphs are constructed:
  • Technical, related to the actual content itself and the points and suggestions that are made:
  • General, related to more general issues, such as missing material, or whether entire sections can be omitted.
Please use the comments function on the website, as this allows us to compare multiple comments on each paragraph. Sending us word documents with tracked changes will not help, as we don't have the resources to compile that sort of response. 

Please give us your views, and help improve the guide!





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