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StrategyJul 09, 2014

Knowledge Management System is an Oxymoron

Marleta Hansen

Experience is the Key to Knowledge

Would you use a manual to teach someone to ride a bike?  To put it another way, can you write a manual someone could read and, with no other help, learn to ride a bike?  Probably not.

When I learned to ride a bike, my parents started me out with training wheels, so I could learn to pedal and steer before learning to balance.  I remember the big day when we took off the training wheels. My dad “promised” he wouldn’t let go, and I rode off down the driveway.  My dad let go after a few yards, and I didn’t realize I was on my own until I heard my mom yelling, “You’re doing it! You’re doing it!” in the background.

Bike riding, swimming, and walking are all things we learn from doing—from experience.  Many people learn to walk, bike, and swim before they can read. But if I were teaching an adult to swim, I wouldn’t dream of sitting back to watch at the edge of the pool after merely handing my pupil a manual.  Instead, I would use proven techniques to first give the person the experience of floating before moving on to arm and leg movements.  The experience is the key.

My examples are a bit extreme.  Manuals and book learning can be valuable teaching tools, but in many cases experience is the key to knowledge.

EXPLICIT VS. TACIT KNOWLEDGE

Some knowledge is ideal for sharing through writing or speech.  For example, I can do a quick Google search to find a new function in Excel. I can read a forum post to learn the function, and then I can put it into practice.  Knowledge that can be explained in words or writing is known as explicit knowledge.

There is another type of knowledge called tacit knowledge—knowing more than you explain or write down.  It’s good to share explicit knowledge, but since it’s so easily captured, it’s less valuable than tacit knowledge. You don’t come across tacit knowledge as often since it’s more difficult to transfer. While explicit knowledge sharing is appreciated, I believe tacit knowledge sharing is the key to success when a company talks about knowledge capital.

DOCUMENTATION AND TRAINING FALL SHORT

Because the best way to learn tacit knowledge is through experience and it can’t be fully explained in words, we need a new way of thinking about knowledge sharing to capitalize on the value of tacit knowledge.

I believe there is too much focus on formal training and all-encompassing documentation efforts.  Training without real experiences is often wasted time.  In the rare occasion a large documentation effort is actually completed, there’s a good chance the documentation will not be referenced as much as was intended, and the documentation will be out of date quickly due to the rapidly changing corporate environment.

There are times when formal documentation is appropriate, and I’m not envisioning an eradication of training.  But they’re not always the right answer.  Before setting out to share knowledge, we must determine if the knowledge we’re sharing is explicit or tacit.  If the knowledge is explicit, get out your pen and paper. But if the knowledge is more tacit in nature, we need a different delivery mechanism for knowledge sharing.

HOW IS TACIT KNOWLEDGE SHARED?

Since documentation and training fall short, how can we share tacit knowledge?  Personal experience is ideal, but experience can also be expensive, risky, and time consuming.  Short of personal experience, I believe the best way to share tacit knowledge is through building connections with second-hand experience.

For example, let’s assume widget building is a specialized skill in your industry.  Bill is a new widget builder with very little experience, but Sally has been building widgets for many years.  Bill meets Sally by the water cooler and is interested in Sally’s story of new widget building techniques that could set their company apart from its competitors.  Bill could add more value if he learns to build widgets with Sally’s innovative method.

Bill stays in touch with Sally as she develops the new widget building technique, and Sally shares her experiences with Bill.  Sally shares stories of both successes and failures in her innovation process.  Before Sally would have time to create any formal documentation, Bill is already familiar with Sally’s experiences and is starting to learn the tacit knowledge of this new widget building method.  Eventually Bill will need experiences of his own to truly learn the new technique, but sharing in Sally’s experiences provides a good foundation for Bill’s knowledge.

COMPANY CULTURE AND CONNECTION BUILDING

In my experience, building the type of connections necessary to share tacit knowledge is an activity that bubbles up from within a company’s culture.  Tools and technologies can assist in knowledge sharing, but technologies cannot help in sharing knowledge if a company’s culture does not foster knowledge sharing.

A connection building culture encourages employees to share ideas in unstructured formats with few barriers.  Requiring structured formats may discourage employees from sharing or might be too time consuming for ideas to be worth sharing. If there is competition between employees within a company, like the competitive landscape between companies, incentive structures may inadvertently discourage sharing new ideas.

In my opinion, the term “knowledge management system” is an oxymoron. Real knowledge can’t be managed in a system.  Instead, knowledge is shared through personal connections, and knowledge sharing technologies can only play a supporting role.

Does your company culture encourage building connections to share tacit knowledge?  Or are you endlessly trying to create documents to meet your annual quota of contributions to the company’s knowledge management system?

Before you undertake a project to fix your internal knowledge sharing through an overhaul of the knowledge management system, take a look at your company’s culture.  Consider a cultural initiative to encourage tacit knowledge sharing through connection building.  Once you have a culture of connection building, tools that support unstructured tacit knowledge sharing can be more valuable.

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