Friday 12 August 2016

Don't fix knowledge problems with information tools

Knowledge and information are not the same, so why do we try to solve Knowledge problems with Information tools?

Image from wikimedia commons
Often a client comes to us and says something like "We have a Knowledge Management problem. Our project teams can't find the knowledge they need to deliver their projects. We want you to work with us to develop a better way to characterise, store and access project information".

They have a Knowledge problem, which they think can be solved with Information tools, such as taxonomies, metadata, portals and search. However you cannot solve knowledge problems with information tools alone (I say "alone", as these tools may be part of the mix for the solution) for the following reasons.

Firstly much of the knowledge of the organisation is never codified as information. People know more that they can tell, and tell more than they can write. Maybe as much as 80% of the knowledge in an organisation is undocumented, and can only be accessed through networks, communities of practice, and conversational processes such as Peer Assist and Knowledge Exchange. Information tools leave this knowledge untouched.

Secondly the vast majority of the information is not knowledge anyway. If you are relying on project documents as a source of knowledge, you will be very disappointed. Many of the documents are purely transactional (reports, memos, invoices, charts), and while other documents will tell you what the project did, they won't tell you what the project learned, or what they would advise other projects to do. You need to introduce processes of team reflection and lesson-learning, together with the relevant accountabilities, for this knowledge even to be recorded in thr first place. 

Thirdly if there is codified knowledge in the project documents, it tends to be scattered across many documents and many projects. Project A may have learned a little bit about a specific process, product or client, and so may Projects B, C, E and Z.  But those little bits will not have been pulled together into a body of knowledge without specific accountabilities and processes to do so. Managing little bits is not like managing the whole.

Better management of information can help with, but can never solve, knowledge problems. If you have a knowledge problem, you need knowledge management, not better management of information.

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