Thursday, 1 August 2019

Knowers and Learners - two end members on a KM culture spectrum

The knower/learner spectrum is one of the key dimensions of KM culture, and one that all knowledge managers should understand.


Knowers and Learners are two archetypes within Knowledge Management, representing two end-members of one of the ten cultural dimensions of Organisational Learning.

The difference between the two is fundamental to the Knowledge Management culture shift, and is well illustrated in an old issue of System Thinker magazine, in a piece entitled "Confessions of a recovering knower" by Brian Hinken. 

In this article, based on typical recovering-addict stories, Brian talks about the difference between knowers and learners.
The difference between a knower and a learner, very simply, is that a Learner is willing to admit "I don't know", and be influenced (while) Knowers believe they know all they need to know to address the situations they are responsible for. But at an even deeper level, Knowing is so central to who they are that they sometimes act as if they do know something, even when they don't.
These two archetypes of Knower and Learner are similar to those that I discussed a few weeks ago as  Rocks and Sponges. One is willing and eager to learn, the other defends their own knowledge as a way of defending their own self-worth.

The 5 secrets of a Knower


Brian describe five particular thinking habits related to the Knower stance, which he refers to as the “five secrets of a knower”. I have shortened these a bit.

  1. I Live My Life on a Problem-Solving Treadmill. My life is dominated by solving problems. It is how I feel effective and make progress. 
  2. I Force Groups to Comply with My Way. I know that groups work best when all members operate from the same page. Therefore, when I work in groups, I must convince others that I have the “right page” and that all they have to do is follow me. 
  3. I Must Protect Myself During Conversations. My objective in every conversation is to win. If I can be seen as right, rational, and not responsible, I have successfully protected my image as a competent person. I defend my beliefs and conclusions at all costs, because a chink in my self-created armor could cause extraordinary stress for me. It would threaten the core beliefs upon which I base all my knowing. 
  4. I Focus Exclusively on My Own Little Piece of the World. Because my aim is to control things as much as possible and to make things around me predictable, I focus almost exclusively on my team, department, group, family—in short, my realm. If I can make sure that my areas of responsibility perform well, then I can blame areas outside my domain when problems occur.
  5. I Direct and Debate During Group Interactions. I expect group members to interact by playing out predictable, consistent roles, which I reinforce by directing the interaction and controlling the agenda as much as possible... I constantly bring up what worked for me in the past as a way of maintaining the focus of attention on areas where I have expertise. If I have position power in a group, I use it to manipulate the conversation, so that the outcomes are in line with what I want. 

We can see easily how an organisation of  Knowers would block any KM culture change efforts, and a key part of the culture change effort is to move Knowers towards becoming Learners.

Moving from Knower to Learner


Brian goes further in his article and discusses both how he changed his own stance from Knower to Learner, and how others can do the same. He describes 5 areas which the Knower needs to "let go of" in order to become a learner.

These are as follows (I have changed the wording slightly);

QuestionKnower stanceLearner stance
1. Are you producing the desired results?Yes, of courseNot necessarily
2. Can you take responsibility for changing things?NoYes
3. Could you try other ways of doing things?No - I know the right way.Yes, I am open to alternatives
4. Might there be approaches you currently don't know?Of course not; I am the expert.Of course.
5. Are you willing to be influenced?NoYes

This shift from knower to learner is one of the most fundamental transformations you may need to encourage and support in your organisation.

  • Finally we can visibly promote and recognise people who show Learner behaviours. 
For more on Knowers and Learners, see below



Don't be a knower - be a learner, and support others in being learners too.



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