Tuesday, 6 October 2015

How to give knowledge shelf-life

The best knowledge is always the freshest, but sometimes we need to preserve knowledge for longer term use. How can we do this, without losing the freshness?


Every cook knows that it's best to cook with fresh tomatoes. There is nothing sweeter that a fresh tomato, still warm from the sunshine, picked fresh from the vine.

However a fresh tomato does not stay fresh very long, and if we want to cook with tomatoes long into the winter, we need to find a way to preserve them for the longer term.  Hence the tome spent by many a gardener/cook standing over a hot stove, canning produce for the winter.

Canned tomatoes do not have the same quality as fesh, but we can use them in january, when the snow is on the ground and the tomato vines are part of the compost heap.

The key, however, is to preserve them properly. Poorly canned tomatoes can be a source of botulism and food poisoning.

Knowledge is like tomatoes.

The best knowledge is also the freshest. Tacit knowledge - knowledge held in the head - has context, it has depth, it has vibrancy. It lives in practice, grows with practice, and is transferred through conversation in communities of practice.

However if it is not kept alive in continued practice, this knowledge loses its freshness

Imagine a task where there is a gap in practice - where we do the task once, then several months pass before we do it again. During this time, the human memory starts to leak. It starts to reinvent the past, and forget details. It's fallibility becomes apparent, and the three Gorilla Illusions start to work their destructive spell. The tacit knowledge loses its freshness and may go bad.

We need to preserve this knowledge for the future, which is where explicit knowledge comes in - knowledge which has been documented and stored in order to give it some shelf-life.

Explicit knowledge is always a second-best to tacit knowledge.  It does not have the same quality, the same freshness, as tacit knowledge.  However it has shelf-life and it has longevity. Its reliability in the longer term offsets many of its impediments, and the checklists, the wikis, the knowledge assets become our primary source (or at the very least, back up the tacit knowledge and fill in the gaps)

Our challenge then, as knowledge managers, is to recognise where knowledge must be tacit and where it must be explicit; and where it has to be explicit, to capture it with the maximum of context, the maximum of depth, and the maximum of life.

Like the gardener standing over the hot stove, preserving knowledge for the future is an investment in time and effort, and must be done properly if the knowledge is to be usuable again in the future.

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