What's Knowledge?

This paper on KM, The Duality of Knwoledge, strikes me as important. Knowledge is not the codifiable subject matter of AI. Nor is it the tacit and explicit categories described by Nonaka which have served as my intellectual overview of KM. The authors, Paul Hildreth and Chris Kimble, state flatly that Nonaka's spiral of knowledge creation is flawed. Tacit (soft) knowledge simply doesn't translate into explicit (hard) knowledge as Nonaka proposes. Take soft knowledge out of context and it becomes meaningless, "lost in the unfathomable depths of obviousness."

If soft knowledge poses the main challenge to KM, then in order to manage soft knowledge more successfully we should move away from a representationalist view of knowledge towards a more constructionist view. To move towards the management of soft knowledge we need to understand the processes that govern its construction and nurturing in an organisation.
Lave and Wenger (1991) suggest that a process called Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP) in Communities of Practice (CoPs) can assist the creation and sustenance of such knowledge.

For Lave and Wenger (1991) LPP defines a CoP. Newcomers learn the practice of the community by being situated in it and from its established members. LPP is part of the process by which a newcomer becomes an established member of a CoP. LPP allows the development of both hard and soft knowledge. Hard knowledge can be articulated and may be exemplified by tasks the members of a CoP perform. Soft knowledge is that knowledge which the newcomer cannot learn simply by demonstration or instruction. It includes learning the language and unspoken conventions of the community. Soft knowledge is developed and learnt through being socialised into the community and through interaction with the existing members.

Orr's 'war stories' (1997) provide a good example of this as well as demonstrating the process of legitimation in a CoP. The utterance of the story itself is an externalisation of the teller's inner thoughts, although the knowledge held by the teller cannot be wholly externalised and passed as information. The members' of the CoP soft knowledge is necessary for a complete understanding the story. An outsider or a newcomer who has not yet developed the appropriate knowledge will not have the same level of understanding as an old-timer.

Thus, CoPs are more than environments in which soft knowledge is developed - both hard and soft knowledge are created and shared. The implication of this is that it is pointless to seek soft knowledge on its own. Knowledge is not made up of opposites; regarding knowledge in these terms is a false dichotomy. Rather than seeing knowledge as opposites, perhaps we should think of it as consisting of two complementary facets: a duality consisting simultaneously and inextricably of both what was previously termed 'structured' and 'less structured' knowledge.

But there's more to it than that. All knowledge is part tacit and part explicit. It's a duality.

Quoting Cook and Seely Brown,

    "We act within a social and physical world and since knowing is an aspect of action it is about interaction with that world. When we act, we either give shape to the physical world or both. Thus 'knowing' does not focus on what we possess in our heads it focuses on our interactions with the things of the social and physical world. (Cook & Seely Brown, 1999: 388)"

Finerty (1997) points out that technology has a role to play, but that the emphasis needs to move from trying to package knowledge as an object to using technology as a way of sharing experience. This view is supported by Davenport and Prusak who emphasise the potential of technology as a means to create links between people:

    ...the more rich and tacit knowledge is, the more technology should be used to enable people to share that knowledge directly. It's not a good idea to try and contain or represent the knowledge itself using technology. (Davenport & Prusak, 1998: 96)

Back to Wenger's communities of practice.

Learning is social participation, that is, defining oneself in the context of the professional group, but it's more than that. Any community produces artifacts from its values, a process Wenger calls "reification." He writes that he uses reification "...to refer to the process of giving form to our experience by producing objects that congeal this experience into thingness. This is the creation of sacred cows, rules of thumb, war stories, professional jargon, and the like.

KNOWLEDGE = a balance of participation & reification

The authors point out that "the key attribute of knowledge: that it exists in people's heads. Once explicit knowledge has been committed to paper, (or any other medium) it becomes information. The original knowledge remains in the mind of the author and (in an ideal world) is only transmitted to the mind of the reader through this medium."

Can stories capture the dual knowledge? Not necessarily, because "knowledge taken out of context is just noise."

...Rather than simply attempting to implement technological solutions, a key part of the management of knowledge is facilitating communication and interaction between people.

This shows us that the role of technology must be substantially different from the earlier technology-driven approaches. The problem with these approaches was that they ignored the soft side. Therefore, at best, such systems were Information Management Systems and at worst simply Data Processing Systems. Where the softer side of knowledge has been ignored, the wrong approach is often taken. The idea that a company can capture tacit knowledge is clearly misleading because in essence embodied knowledge cannot be extracted.

There's a discussion list for taking these thoughts further.

Posted by Jay Cross at October 21, 2002 10:15 AM | TrackBack

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