Wednesday 16 February 2011

What was KM like, before IT?

CSIRAC -Australia's First Computer and iPod
It seems to be almost a reflex action among knowledge managers, to see IT as the solution.

"I have a knowledge sharing problem in my company- I will buy SharePoint 2010"

"Knowledge is being hoarded, I will buy Yammer"

"Knowledge is held in silos, we must get blogging software"
But if knowledge is the problem, is IT always the solution?

Or to put it another way, what was KM like before IT?

Knowledge management, knowledge sharing and knowledge re-use are not exclusively modern problems, and have been addressed in many ways over the centuries and milennia. The storytelling rituals of so-called primitive tribes were ways of encoding knowledge into story, so it could be retained and transferred and reused across the generations, and between the villages. Technology, in these early days, was provided by pigment on cave walls, or totems carved into antlers and bones. Oral storytelling may still be the primary mechanism of knowledge sharing in societies with low literacy rates.

Knowledge sharing in 15th century Portugal has already been described in this post, where the Sagres school of Henry the Navigator provided a mechanism and a focus for building and sharing knowledge of navigation, and knowledge of the geography of West Africa (knowledge which gave Portugal a highly competitive advantage). The combination of a shared library, and a place where pilots and captains could meet, learn, discuss, tell stories and learn new techniques, new approaches, new harbours and new routes.

Knowledge sharing in the medieval times was also provided by the craftsmen's guilds. Acting like communities of practice, the guilds were where the silversmiths, or the goldsmiths, or the engravers, went to learn and practice their craft. The guildhalls were where the community met, and where the transfer of knowledge was arranged through the apprentice-journeyman-master-grandmaster progression. Guilds "owned" instructional capital and intellectual property, and often gained huge competitive advantage for guild members through that ownership.

More recently, I was involved with a knowledge management solution for a team working in Vietnam, when western technology was still embargoed. Their solution was based on a team-room, on after action reviews and conversations, and on wall-charts and flipcharts.

Knowledge Management can be done without IT, but in some cases IT makes KM much easier. Knowledge management is based on conversation and story, and IT can sometimes allow conversations that otherwise would not be possible. Knowledge management requires people to meet and discuss, and IT can provide the virtual meeting points - the virtual Guildhalls if you like. Knowledge management requires somewhere where common intellectual property can be stored, and IT can provide the virtual library for a community. IT allows the age-old and traditional mechanisms of KM to be made virtual and global.

The problem arises when IT is selected blindly, and becomes inappropriate - when IT replaces or blocks the very behaviours it needs to maintain. I have blogged before about the company that introduced community technology to spark conversation among its specialist community, in a situation where requiring a co-located group to converse online in English was far less effective than introducing a few face-to-face conversation processes which they could hold in their native language. IT got in the way, it blocked conversation, and unsurprisingly the community forums were empty. Similarly there are situations where a blog is far less effective than a meeting, or where a sharepoint site is far less effective than a notice-board.

KM can survive without IT, but there are many situations where IT makes KM easier, or gives it a geographic spread it would otherwise lack. 

Similarly there are other situations where IT does not help, gets in the way, or blocks or buries conversation.

The key is to think, not to assume. Think what's needed, rather than assume a toolkit from the start.  The key is to think "What conversations are needed, and how and where should they take place? What communal knowledge or stories need to be made available, and how and where should they be stored? Which people do we need to connect, and how and where is this best done?"

Once you have answered these questions, you will understand better how IT can play it's supporting role.

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