Sunday, 19 July 2009

Beyond Explicit? Embedded knowledge.

Originally uploaded by Liamngls
Most people I speak to understand explicit knowledge to be as defined here from Wikipedia (and I would like for the moment to side-step the discussion about whether the description below refers to knowledge or information)

Explicit knowledge is knowledge that has been or can be articulated, codified, and stored in certain media. It can be readily transmitted to others. The information contained in encyclopedias (including Wikipedia) are good examples of explicit knowledge.

It is something codified and stored, and can be transmitted; like an article, an instruction, a video which demonstrates a process. Someone else can interact with this material and internalise it, act on it, and do something as a result.

But there is another state in which knowledge can be expresses, and that is actually to embed it in a product or an object or a system. Let me explain with an example.

I worked with a team in a pilot chemical plant in the USA. This was a plant which operated a new process, and they were learning - gaining knowledge- about plant operation. One of the things they learned, through discussion, and through trial and success, was how to shut the plant down safely. Once they knew how to do this, they wrote it down as a procedure, and perfected the procedure until they had it just right. The next step was then to program this procedure into the plant operating system, so that if there is a problem - a fire, an overflow, a blockage - the plant automatically shuts itself down by following the best-practice procedure.

Now, what state is that knowledge in? I would say it has gone beyond explicit. Its no longer like an encyclopedia example, its not something that "can be readily transmitted to others". It's hardwired into the operating system.

Let's call it "embedded knowledge"

There are lots of examples of embedded knowledge around us. The lawnmower with the deadman's handle that shuts off the blades if we let go, because we all know it's dangerous to handle a mower with spinning blades. The microwave that calculates the defrost time based on weight and food type. The aeroplane that knows how to land itself. The satnav that knows how to get from London to Paris. These are all examples of where the decision making is taken away from the human operator, and designed into the product. Someone has taken what they know to be "the best way to operate", and encoded this into design.

Sometimes this embedded knowledge is annoying, like the Microsoft Document that thinks it knows better than me where it needs to be filed, and what formatting it should use, but let's not go there.

There are other ways Knowledge can become embedded. It can be embedded in organisational Structure, for example. There as a time when it was "established knowledge" that a function-based organisation worked best. Then it become "established knowledge" that multidisciplinary teams worked better. Each change in knowledge becomes embedded in a change in the structure of the company. Also project management structures like PRINCE2 can be seen as knowledge embedded into frameworks.

So what is the implication of recognising this additional form of knowledge?

Firstly, it leads us to think that writing knowledge down as a process is not necessarily enough to ensure the process is always followed. Maybe we can embed it in a system or design. It's not enough, for example, to write down as a lesson "don't let the driver drive the tanker away, until you are sure the hose is uncoupled" - maybe you need an action, to put a barrier in front of the tanker which will not open until the hose is back in its holder.

Secondly, the implication is that as knowledge develops, then structures, frameworks and programming may need to develop also. PRINCE2 for example needs (in my opinion) to develop to include recent advances in project-based Knowledge Management.

Thirdly, it can be easy for this embedded knowledge to become decoupled from the real knowledge that fed it. I was talking with some people a while back, who were describing the programing that had gone into one of their products, that was effectively embedded knowledge, and the people who had programmed it had gone. Nobody now understood the rationale behind the programming. With the tacit knowledge missing, nobody could quality control the embedded knowledge, and say if it was still valid.

So think about it. maybe your approach to KM in your organisation needs to look beyond the explicit, and look at the embedded knowledge as well.


Anonymous said...

Really helped me to understand what embedded knowledge is all about.
Waiting for more inputs.

Xiaoqi Zhang said...

Is knowledge embedded in product and AI the same thing?

Nick Milton said...

What do you mean by AI? Do you mean Artificial Intelligence? That's not necessarily what I mean - it could be as simple as the safety switch on a ride-on lawnmower that turns off the blades when you get out of the seat. I would not call that AI - more "embedded common sense"

James McGillis said...

While doing research for an article in 2011, I came across this article and its "<<"embed">>" photo. Immediately I embedded your photo of the second-story airplane into my article at ( Also on that page, I linked back here to you. I guess you could say that we are embed together. Ha!

Seriously, thank you for the great article. In the future, I hope you will allow me to display your entertaining photo and allow me to continue to link back here.
Jim McGillis

Nick Milton said...

Not my photo James - the photo credit is under the picture, it is from FLickr, Originally uploaded by Liamngls

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