Thursday, July 17, 2008

The KM Core Sample

One of my favorite diagrams of the past year or so is what I call the "KM Core Sample". The Core Sample is not really an architectural diagram, since it shows no process or function that can be implemented. But I have found the diagram to be extremely useful in explaining why knowledge management is such a complex topic and where various KM methodologies "fit" within the strata of the knowledge universe.

(Click to expand)

The Core Sample is -- like its name sake -- a snapshot of a point in time. It captures the various levels of "knowledge" and where they reside. The diagram also illustrates the rationalization and codification of knowledge as it rises through the layers.

That last statement might sound like the description of a process: the codification of knowledge. But what I like about the diagram is that it shows that different types of knowledge reside in all levels at any given time.

This is because the process of codifying or standardizing knowledge into actionable procedures and practices actually changes the knowledge. It cleanses, sanitizes, and simplifies the knowledge -- removing the stray tidbits, the ugly but necessary workarounds, the secret tricks of the trade... all of the untidy clutter that make up true expertise in a field -- all of this is stripped off to achieve a linear, documentable, process.

But back to the diagram. Let's take a quick look at the various strata of the core sample:

  • Starting at the bottom, at the very core, are people. This is where true knowledge exists. In other words what people know. And the most accurate way of sharing that knowledge is talking to the people who possess it: asking questions, telling stories, cracking jokes.
  • The next layer up is where that personal communication is expanded to allow people to "talk" to others they do not know or cannot meet in person. Email distribution lists, forums, and other discussion technology reside in this layer. (Note that blogs are also in this layer.)
  • The next layer up represents "knowledge capture". Here the knowledge is instantiated in documents of some kind: sample documents, lesson learned, case studies, white papers. These all represent mechanisms used to selectively capture and sort knowledge in such a way that it can be reused by people who may never come in contact with the original author. The obvious limitation is that only a small portion of what any individual knows about their profession is captured in any of these documents. This is offset by trying to capture the most important or influential pieces of wisdom.
  • Finally, in the top layer the captured knowledge and learnings are further refined into a defined set of templates, guidelines, and standard processes. In some sense, you might say that in this final layer the actual "knowledge" has been removed and is replaced by step-by-step procedures to ensure a consistent and reliable execution of desired behavior. To achieve this goal, a significant amount of sorting, sifting, and selection is required to winnow down all possible options or alternatives to a limited set of recommended or required processes and deliverables.

What I like about the core sample diagram is that it helps you discuss the scope and effects of different approaches to knowledge management. Collaboration strategies focus on the tacit knowledge layer. Methods like knowledge harvesting, lessons learned, and storytelling focus on the best practices layer. While ITIL, Six Sigma, ISO 9001, and other standardization methodologies focus on establishing institutionalized knowledge.

1 comment:

JohnAndrewKossey said...

Hello, Andrew,

I saw your blog for the first time on Monday. It's remarkably thoughtful and stimulating.

While bicycling yesterday, I pondered on your illuminating KM Core Sample diagram.

May I suggest that a small addition to the diagram could be useful? Put a pump rig at the top to indicate the desired output of active exploration and investment opportunity for knowledge management:

Engaged Knowledge Synergy Driving Value in Context

Here's my rationale:

KM methodologies work collectively to make a bottom-line difference.

It's not sufficient for sustaining an organization's competitive advantage or other measures of success to focus on any single KM initiative such as implementing ITIL 3.0 or promoting SharePoint adoption.

Granted, any given methodology that is working certainly is a plus. In my perspective, KM needs to integrate and extend "engagement" throughout a business context (or eco-system) at every applicable level.

Authentic engagement also means that KM becomes embedded as a fundamental way of doing business in a manner that continuously revitalizes the organization, particularly the people.

Knowledge synergy implies a growing maturation in institutional wisdom for beneficial decision making.

When we make the long-term value of KM methodologies explicit, buy-in becomes more transparent.