Friday 11 September 2020

The role of reports in Knowledge Management

 Reports are poor places to keep knowledge. However they do have a role to play in Knowledge Management. 

Image from wikimedia commons
by user Coolcaesar under CC licence

Once upon a time, we relied on reports, papers and books to store our knowledge. This was before the Internet, before networked computers, when the only way to share explicit knowledge was to write it down and publish it as an item. Think of the learned societies in the 18th century, when knowledge advanced by experts reading their papers, which were then bound into journals wto be published for the readers.

In the 21st century, we are no longer bound by the same limitations, and we can question whether the old model, of publishing authored reports, papers and other items and artefacts, is still the only way to manage  knowledge.

Using reports to store knowledge has three major drawbacks:

  • Reports have an author, occasionally two or three. Knowledge on the other hand is built through the interaction of very many people. Knowledge belongs to, and is born in, communities. The ownership of knowledge is collective, and to talk of an "author" for knowledge is meaningless. Already we see examples of scientific communities collaboratively creating work; the outputs from the Polymath community are authored under the pseudonym of "DHJ Polymath" for example, to reflect the massive collaborative nature of the community.
  • Reports have a publication date, at which point they are frozen in time and cannot be further edited (unless they become new versions of the report). Knowledge is not frozen in time. Knowledge evolves, knowledge changes, often rapidly. It cannot have a publication date - the only really valid publication date for knowledge is "Now". A report on the other hand is outdated the moment it is written. 
  • Reports (with some exceptions) seldom go back over the history of a topic. If you want to understand the current state of the art of a topic, you may have to read multiple reports and decide for yourself what is relevant and what can be ignored. 

So if we don't store Knowledge in reports, then where do we store it?

Knowledge should be stored somewhere editable and updatable, so that it can evolve and change, synthesising new knowledge with existing knowledge as contexts, circumstances and understanding change. 

  • A wiki, for example. Wikipedia, for all its flaws, is widely recognised as a first-stop shop for knowledge, and a place where multiple authors can help knowledge evolve and grow. Shell make massive use of their enterprise wiki, Pfizer have the "Pfizerpedia", even the Military are using wikis to house doctrine
  • Or a multi-author blog, where knowledge can be refined in comments and discussions. This was the Polymath approach, with discussion in blogs eventually moved to a wiki.
  • Or a knowledge base where the users can edit (or at least request edits of) the content.
  • Or a community discussion forum.

If you have such a technology, adopted by a community of practice, with new knowledge being used to update the collective knowledge in real time, then Knowledge can grown, can evolve, and will always have a publication date of Now (or if not Now, then at least "recently updated").

So what role do reports play in all this?

I am not saying that organisations should no longer write reports - far from it. Projects need to create reports, discrete pieces of work need reports, constultants need to write reports; reports are a necessary deliverable to document work that has been done. They are the primary means of meeting reporting requirements.  However they should not be the primary repository for knowledge. Their role is as follows:

Reports should document the evidence on which the knowledge is based. That evidence is then used by the community to update the knowledge.

In knowledge terms, reports should collect data, present data, propose insights and conclusions, and offer lessons. The lessons from reports are the increments from which knowledge can be built and refined. On wikipedia, reports are the references, bibliography and external links that you see at the foot of the page. My guess is that you often use Wikipedia, but seldom click those links. However the links and references are the paper-trail - the audit trail that allows you to look at the sources from which the knowledge has been drawn. 

In a knowledge management framework, reports are outputs of the project workstream, but are not suitable outputs for the knowledge workstream. See and here for further discussion on the two workstreams.

I hope this makes sense. Reports (with their single authors and publication dates) are needed, but should not be the primary store for knowledge because knowledge evolves and reports are static. Instead you need to store knowledge somewhere editable by the community. In the 18th century, this was not possible. In the 21st century, editable knowledge stores are easy to set up.

If you are still using reports to store knowledge, then its time to rethink the possibilities. 

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