Is KM as Easy as Falling off a Bike?

July 25, 2019

How many collaborators does it take to change a light bulb? We often have discussions with our clients about the benefits of collaboration in KM, as well as KM and learning.

In KM circles, knowledge is often defined as either explicit (defined as knowledge that is codified and written down) or tacit (defined as “know-how,” and thus hard to write down and transfer to others). Some KM practitioners go so far as to claim that explicit knowledge isn’t really knowledge, but simply “information.”

KM practitioners who emphasize tacit knowledge tend to focus on collaboration and knowledge transfer via social interactions. This leaves books or other written materials out of the KM equation—and that can be dangerous.

When thinking about KM and learning, it’s clear that collaboration is important and critical for KM, but explicit knowledge is also a key element of your KM ecosystem.

Knowing how to ride a bike usually falls into the category of tactic knowledge. We assume the skill of bike riding is know-how, it cannot be written down. We assume you need someone to teach you; you just can’t learn it from a book. Most of us learned to ride a bike by having a parent teach us, and with lots of practice. Let’s dig a little deeper into these assumptions.

A Lucidea colleague observed that he taught both of his children to ride a bike, and neither ever fell down. He said this is not because he is a genius and had some special tacit knowledge that he passed on to his children—but rather because he used a method that can be written down and followed. He in essence claims that learning how to ride a bike relies on explicit knowledge (which is different from knowing how to ride a bike).

Here is his method:

  • Preparation: You have a normal bike (no training wheels), fitted to the trainee (person learning to ride).
  • Step 1: Remove the pedals from the bike. (You can also use an expensive “Balance Bike” built without pedals.)
  • Step 2: Find a very gentle downhill slope. Have the trainee place their feet on the side of the bike but off the ground. Push the balanced bike forward. Try and coast the balanced bike several feet. When the bike begins to tilt over, have the trainee stop the bike and stop it from falling over with their feet.
  • Step 3: Repeat Step 2 many, many, times, increasing the distance of the coast until the trainee can coast about 30 feet.

Note: they have now mastered the critical skill in bike riding—being able to balance on the bike.

  • Step 4: Put the pedals back on the bike. (If you have used a Balance Bike for the above steps you will now need a real bike.)
  • Step 5: Have the trainee sit on the bike with their feet on the pedals. Push the bike and have them repeat the success of their longest coast from Step 3. But at the ¾ point of the coast have the trainee pedal the bike to keep it moving. Make sure you have arranged a place to stop the bike and get off safely.
  • Step 6: Repeat Step 5 many times, pedaling longer and longer distances.

Result:The trainee can now ride a bike.

So is riding a bike “know-how?” Yes, clearly the skill of being balanced on a bike is in your head and cannot be written down or easily transferred to others. But the method to learn this skill can be written down, and can be followed so that others can learn it.

So, let’s circle back to the subtitle – “How many collaborators does it take to change a light bulb?” If instructions are written down – not many. If they’re not written down, it could take several as various attempts run into difficulties, such as: the light bulb is broken because it is gripped too hard, the person receives a nasty shock when exploring the socket, etc.

Key to an understanding of KM and learning within any organization is to recognize that KM systems must support both collaboration (knowledge transfer from person to person) and the ability to document and codify key knowledge (knowledge transfer from systems to people).

What do you think? Does your knowledge management system support both collaboration and knowledge lookup?

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