A visit to an Electricity Substation a few weeks ago got me thinking about how Knowledge and Electricity are alike, and how the electrical power grid of a country can form an analogy to the Knowledge management framework of an organisation.
Here are some of the ways
1) Both Electricity and Knowledge have no real value until they are applied. Neither electricity in a battery, nor knowledge in someone's head, has any value until it is turned into action.
2) Both Electricity and Knowledge need to flow before they can be applied. Electricity flows in a current, knowledge flows between people.
3) Both Electricity and Knowledge need connections in order to flow. Electricity needs a grid in order to flow around a country, with generating stations connected to substations connected to houses and connected to devices such as laptops and freezers. Knowledge needs connections between people, and connections from people to stored knowledge. Connections can occur within communities of practice, for example; these are KM's equivalent of the power grids that cross a country.
4) The flow of electricity and knowledge both need to be aimed towards the consumer. The person who switches on their laptop expects the electricity to arrive. The person who asks a question of their Community of Practice, or types a query into a search engine, expects the answer to arrive. In either case, if this does not happen, the consumer loses faith in the system.
5) The connections need to be closed in a circuit. I am thinking of power circuits now - the sort of things we built in school, with light bulbs and batteries. Knowledge also needs to be part of a closed loop; knowledge is applied in action, but is also created through action. Consumers of knowledge are also producers of knowledge, and the flow of knowledge needs to form a closed learning loop.
6) Both electricity and knowledge can flow into and out of storage. Electricity can be stored in batteries at a small scale, and at a larger scale in technologies such as pumped storage schemes. Knowledge can be stored in knowledge assets and knowledge bases.
7) The storage needs to be efficient. You need to get out what you put in, as much as possible. Efficient batteries can power computers as well as cars nowadays. Efficient knowledge assets are also needed. You can never store all the knowledge of a topic in documents, videos and other files, but the small percentage that you can store needs to be easy to use, and rich in context and content.
8) The storage can go out of date. we have all looked in the battery drawer and found austerities that are leaking, that have become corroded, and that will no longer work. And I guess many of us have looked in knowledge bases and found knowledge that is so out of data as to be worthless. Our knowledge storage system needs to be kept fresh and up to date, old knowledge needs to be thrown out, like old batteries.
9) Both electricity and knowledge need a generation capability. There needs to be a mechanism for generating electricity, and a mechanism for generating new knowledge. The old mechanisms used to be centralised generation - a power station or an R&D department generating electricity and knowledge respectively. Nowadays generation of both electricity and knowledge is becoming more decentralised. Consumers can become producers, with local solar panels and local windmills producing electricity locally, and processes such as After Action Review and Lessons Capture producing knowledge locally.
10) Introducing a country-wide electrical grid is a massive undertaking, with the construction of pylons, substations, power lines and meters. Similarly introducing a company-wide knowledge grid is a big undertaking, with the creation of communities of practice and project-based learning systems, the introduction of new roles and process and new technologies. Both systems require maintenance - by the Transmission System Operator, and by the Knowledge Management Team. And after a few years, we being to wonder how we could ever have lived without them!