Wednesday 9 November 2016

Knowledge is social, not personal

There is a school of thought that knowledge lies only in the minds of individuals. I think this is wrong, and that reality is both more complex than this, and more interesting.

Image from wikimedia commons
A search of the internet will find  a commonly held view in KM circles that Knowledge only exists in the brains in individuals.  "Knowledge is in the mind" people say, "and all else is information".  Thomas Wilson argues this point in his excellent paper "the nonsense of Knowledge Management", which was written as a polemic against the way Information Management was rebadged Knowledge Management by software vendors and consultants (a process described by Wilson as "search and replace marketing").

This viewpoint suggests that any way that an individual can find to express knowledge (spoken words, written words, recorded demonstrations) just turns it into information, and that any management applied to this process can only be information management.

Certainly the view of knowledge as a human attribute is very useful as a way of distinguishing knowledge management from information management. However I feel that this view focuses too much on the individual, and that in reality knowledge is not an individual attribute, but something shared and social.

The social nature of knowledge

To introduce this topic, I can do no better than to repeat the words of the great Larry Prusak, spoken at RostatomKM 2016

A key point that we (and by we, I mean the collectivity of practitioners and researchers) have learned is that Knowledge is profoundly social. It is not a factor of the individual but a factor of groups of people. Individuals may have separate memories, but do not have separate Knowledge. 

Larry's point is that Knowledge is a collective thing. What we hold in our heads is either invented by ourselves or comes from the collective, and what we invent for ourselves can be

  • opinions
  • hypotheses
  • prejudices
  • cognitive biases
  • fantasies
  • delusions

What turns these opinions etc. into knowledge is usually social confirmation and acceptance.

We see this clearly in the development of scientific knowledge. As part of the scientific method individual scientists develop and test hypotheses, but before these hypotheses are accepted as knowledge, they go through a process of peer review and socialisation. As the UK Parliament site explains

Peer Review is the means by which scientific experts in the field review the output from this process for validity, significance, originality and scientific clarity. Peer review is not, as some outside of science might think, designed to be a fraud detection system. Therefore in our view Peer Review and the subsequent publishing of research is only part, albeit an important one, of how new discoveries become accepted into our collective scientific knowledge.

That last sentence is important - "collective scientific knowledge". There is no such thing as "individual scientific knowledge", and you could argue, as Larry Prusak does, that there is no "individual knowledge" either.

Plato defined knowledge as "justified true belief", which means there needs to be a justification mechanism which can judge "truth". Self-justification by the knower makes no distinction between truth and opinion, and between knowledge and delusion. It is the social group that justifies knowledge.

The implications for Knowledge Management

This alternative viewpoint - that knowledge is social and is held by groups of people rather than by individuals - still distinguishes knowledge from information, but takes us away from the individual human as the unit of analysis for Knowledge management. Here is Larry Prusak again;
There is much greater emphasis on Networks, Communities and Practices, and I state today that this is the correct unit of analysis if you want to work with knowledge in organisations: Networks, Communities and Practices.

This has three main implications:

  • You need to define your Knowledge Management Framework so that the primary "knowledge unit" is the practice area, and the networks and communities of practice are the mechanisms by which knowledge is shared and managed. This is the approach we take at Knoco when building Knowledge Management Frameworks, and we know that it works.
  • Much of the knowledge work you do will not be concerned with individuals or with documents, but with the interactions between people working in social groups. It is within these interactions (Peer Assists, Retrospects, Knowledge Exchange) that knowledge is built, tested and justified.
  • You will find that the main culture change is getting people to see knowledge as something collective, to be built and maintained socially, rather than their own personal property to be protected and hoarded. 

Try this alternative viewpoint - I think you will find it very powerful.

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