David Snowden's landmark blog post in 2008 was an important event in developing a common understanding of Knowledge Management. By introducing his 7 principles, David reminded us that Knowledge is a difficult, personal attribute, not easy of recall, nor of extraction, nor of codification. These principles are widely quoted, often (sadly) without the commentary found in the original article, which adds considerably to the understanding of the principles.
I would like to offer a few addenda to these principles from my own experience, many of which were implicit in the original blog post. The original principles are in bold italic, my addenda in plain italic, and my commentary in plan text below.
- Knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted, but it can be requested.
This first principle is a vital reminder that the disclosure of knowledge is a voluntary act, but I have met people who take this as meaning that the instigation therefore must come from the knowledge-holder. This isn't the case - as principle 3 shows, there are triggers and circumstances that can deeply influence the knowledge-holder to be forthcoming - to share or volunteer rather than hoard. A sincere honest request will do this - extensive peer pressure will also have a strong effect.
- We only know what we know when we need to know it, but recall can be triggered.
In his original commentary, David explains ways in which recall can be triggered, and many effective Knowledge Management practices are based on ways of triggering recall. Group dialogue, storytelling and analysis, interview techniques such as role-playing responses to situations, can all be used as ways of triggering the deep knowledge, and making this conscious.
- In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge, and also in other cases where they feel sharing will "make a difference".
I strongly resonate with this principle and believe it to be absolutely true. It is also based on the concept that Pull beats Push as a stimulus for knowledge sharing. However I am not sure that it always has to be "real need", so long as there is an "acknowledged customer" with whom the knowledge sharer can relate, real interest in, and appreciation of, what the sharer has to offer, and belief that sharing will "make a difference". I have seen many teams, workers or experts share openly and generously, with no real immediate need, but rather a belief that this knowledge will be re-used to help others in similar circumstances. The corollary to this, of course, is that if they feel it won't make a difference, and that their contribution will end up in an information junkyard, then they won't bother.
- Everything is fragmented.
I have nothing to add to this one. Everything is fragmented, knowledge is dispersed, and effective knowledge management approaches need to recognise this.
- Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success, yet repeated failure is stupid, and success breeds success.
There's a lot been written in this blog about the approach to mistakes, and about the role of failure in KM. Individuals learn well from failure, but failure can be very costly. Sincere failure in pursuit of risky goals is fine if treated as a learning opportunity, making the same mistake twice just proves that learning is not happening. Also it is as important to learn from the team that won the deal, as from the team that lost the deal. It is the shining examples, the instances of "positive deviance" which often provide the greatest leap forward in understanding. In our Bird Island exercise, all the participants want to know the secret of the 3 metre tower, and they make their biggest leap in performance once they can copy components of that successful design. Then once they have built their >3m tower, they look at it and think "Wow - I did that, using Knowledge from others". They had to "fail" (build a <1m tower) before they were open to learning, but that combination of failure AND success was crucial. The failure prepared them to learn from the success.
- The way we know things is not the way we report we know things.
- We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down, but good facilitated processes can help with both these steps.
I completely agree with principle number 7, and the principle that value and content are lost in a) making knowledge conscious, and b) making knowledge explicit. There will always be that loss, but there are ways to reduce that loss to some. These ways always involve investment of resource and time, but always add value compared to the default "write down what you know" approach.