Specify Desired Modes of Knowledge Flow, Part 1

Stan Garfield

Stan Garfield

November 12, 2020

The ninth step in the 12 Steps to KM Success is to specify the desired modes of knowledge flow. Part of creating and executing a knowledge management program plan is implementing people, process, and technology components that will achieve your Top 3 Objectives

In order to do so, first think about which types of knowledge flow are needed.

There are five key ways in which the flow of knowledge can be tapped:

  1. Collection: processes and repositories for capturing explicit knowledge. This involves attempting to codify and encapsulate knowledge in writing or some other form of stored data.
  2. Connection: collaboration, communities, and social networks for sharing tacit knowledge. Connecting people allows them to exchange knowledge by communicating with one another.
  3. Boundary spanning: bridges across organizational boundaries for enabling knowledge to flow between previously isolated groups. Building bridges to connect otherwise unconnected networks makes available previously unknown sources of knowledge.
  4. Discovery: processes for learning from existing sources of information, including systems, databases, and libraries. Scouring established knowledge bases in order to gain insights, distill trends, and uncover useful nuggets can provide a competitive advantage.
  5. Creation: processes for stimulating innovation and facilitating invention. By using the other modes of knowledge flow, creative ideas can be developed into useful new products, services, and ways of getting work done.

Putting knowledge to work in order to solve a problem, save time, make a sale, inspire innovation, improve quality, lower costs, increase profits, meet customer needs, and otherwise improve the world requires knowledge to flow between people.

In Mastering Organizational Knowledge Flow: How to Make Knowledge Sharing Work,  the late Frank Leistner wrote, “When I started playing with the notion of knowledge flow, the analogy of knowledge flowing through the organization like a river flowing through its bed seemed to fit for a number of reasons. Flows find their own way, but they can also be guided and stopped by barriers. You can have some individuals steering the direction of the flow on a daily level and others providing the main bed of the river by setting strategic goals for the longer run.”

In The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the Twenty-first Century Organization, Thomas Stewart wrote. “The purpose of projects, therefore, is to get knowledge moving, not to freeze it; to distribute it, not to shelve it.”

In this first in a series of three posts, the first two modes will be discussed. Subsequent posts will cover the remaining three and provide examples.

Collection: processes and repositories for capturing explicit knowledge

Explicit knowledge is formal knowledge that can be conveyed from one person to another in systematic ways. Examples include books, documents, white papers, databases, policy manuals, email messages, spreadsheets, methodologies, multimedia, and other types of files.

Thomas Stewart wrote, “Connection, not collection.” Dave Snowden wrote, “If you ask someone, or a body for specific knowledge in the context of a real need it will never be refused. If you ask them to give you your knowledge on the basis that you may need it in the future, then you will never receive it.” Based on these points it is reasonable to question the value of devoting significant energy to collecting documents in advance of a need. But there is still value in capturing some information in easily retrievable repositories.

For example, before beginning a new project, it is useful to ask the question “Has anyone ever done anything like this before?” If information on all prior projects has been collected in a searchable repository, then this question can be answered. Not all of the documents created by previous projects may have been captured, but if the names of the project team members are available, then it is possible to contact them to find out more and to request any relevant documents. This is an example of how collection and connection can work together to deliver important knowledge at the time of need.

Another example of how collection and connection complement one another is asking a community for help. In responding to a request from one community member, another member can point to a previously stored document that meets the needs of the first member.

One way of minimizing the need for collection is to use connection to identify a need and then respond with a document only upon such a request. Another way is to rely on discovery to ferret out information from existing databases such that additional collection is not required. For example, if information on previous projects is automatically captured as part of the organization’s business management system, then it can be retrieved without the need for additional data entry.

Collection provides the supply side of knowledge. If you decide that it is needed, try to keep it to the absolute minimum needed to support your Top 3 Objectives. Rely on other modes of knowledge flow as much as possible. And be sensitive to Dave Snowden’s point: “If you ask them to give you your knowledge on the basis that you may need it in the future, then you will never receive it.”

Connection: collaboration, communities and social networks for sharing tacit knowledge

Tacit knowledge is personal knowledge that resides in an individual. It is content that has not been recorded or exchanged. It relies on experiences, ideas, insights, values, and judgments and usually requires joint, shared activities in order to transmit it. Individuals possess tacit knowledge and must learn to verbalize that knowledge. The art of talking about a problem or opportunity causes it to take shape and to be defined. Once defined, it can be solved or developed.

Dave Snowden wrote, “We will always tell more than we can write down.” And according to Tom Stewart, “Connection is the essence of knowledge management.” So this mode of knowledge flow should be a key part of your KM plan.

Connection supports the demand side of knowledge. It enables demand-driven or just-in-time knowledge management.

Dave Snowden asserts: “If you ask someone, or a body for specific knowledge in the context of a real need it will never be refused.” And Tom Stewart states: “80 percent of posts start with questions: Does anybody know? Does anybody have? Has anybody ever done something like?”

This argues for including communities and threaded discussions or enterprise social networks (ESNs) in your selected list of KM components. Communities are the people who connect, and threaded discussions/ESNs are the mechanism for the connection. These should almost always be part of any KM program.

In the next post I will cover the next two modes: boundary spanning and discovery.

Stan Garfield

Stan Garfield

Please read Stan’s additional blog posts offering advice and insights drawn from many years as a KM practitioner. You may also want to download a copy of his book, Proven Practices for Implementing a Knowledge Management Program, from Lucidea PressAnd learn about Lucidea’s Inmagic Presto, with KM capabilities to support successful knowledge management programs.

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