This past weekend, I chose to get my annual flowers planted around the yard during what was an unseasonably hot – perhaps even record-setting – period. My husband, who has for years been enjoying the benefits of my floral decor with little understanding for how it materialized, decided to accompany me on the purchasing journey. As we began to walk around the racks and tables of choices at the garden center, I pointed at selections to be added to the cart and crossed them off systematically from a map that I had drawn of the front and back yards. He grabbed the items loyally and added them, and then he looked at me and asked me how I seemed to know automatically which plants to pick and how many.
Good question. I think my answer to him at that point was, “because I’ve been doing it in this yard for fourteen years,” but of course it’s not that simple. Inherent in that statement are my trials and errors in planting things over that fourteen year period, my knowledge of the various critters and insects who seem to prowl our flower beds (and even the deck at times) and their culinary preferences, the changes in the growth of the trees that has taken some sections from sun-loving to shade-loving, the soil type and the growth habits of surrounding plants, the amount of effort I want to put into caring for and pruning my choices, the inventory of existing containers in which to place the flowers, varieties of flowers that have been developed by growers to minimize maintenance and error, and knowledge of the colors that work best with the light conditions at play around the yard. I’m sure I’m missing other factors.
The point is, it would have been very hard for me to say all of that to him when he asked me, and almost impossible for me to transfer all of that knowledge to him by trying to write it down and send him off to do the job on his own. In the world of knowledge management, this is referred to as “tacit knowledge.” It is the knowledge gained from the experience of doing something, the lessons learned from the trials and errors, the buildup of working with the permutations and outcomes over time. Sure, he could decide to become an expert and study gardening books, seek advice from gardening centers, and make a pretty decent stab at getting some things going on around the yard – but he’d probably have to make some of the mistakes that I’ve already made over the years because he’d be missing some of those little factors that I mentioned above – things like the fact that, even though the deck faces south, the locust tree is now so large and umbrella-like that the deck is now a shade environment, or the fact that the dog likes to sniff out bunnies around the bushes by the air conditioner, so anything planted there is likely to be trampled.
In other words, when someone asks you a question that makes you feel frustrated and squirmy because it would be very difficult to explain it all, you’re probably holding a lot of tacit knowledge around that question. So are a lot of folks who are leaving organizations, whether due to retirement, the faltering economy or for other reasons, and that’s a real problem.
Government agencies move in to analyze accidents after they occur in order to try to prevent the set of circumstances that would lead to repeats. The first thing they always look for after a plane disaster is the cockpit voice recorder, because they want to know what was going on in the minds and decisions of the people in charge in order to understand what the machinery can’t tell them. The Army and other branches of the military hold After Action Reviews to capture the memories of what happened and the factors at play immediately after an event on the battlefield, because they know that later on, after everyone’s moved on to other things, some of that memory will fade, and there is no way that soldiers are going to write it all down. David Snowden, in his 7 Rules of Knowledge culled from years of behavioral research on the subject, states that “We always know more than we can say and we will always say more than we can write down.” (Source: Cognitive Edge)
When new technologies at the end of the last century began to enable us to capture what is normally called explicit knowledge – that is, knowledge contained in reports, manuals, presentations or some other tangible form – we focused on what some now call “KM 1.0,” which involved building repositories and search engines. Organizations honed in on the term “best practices” and set out mandates to capture and share them, as if they were rabbits that could be bated into electronic cages. The hard piece of the puzzle, though, involved the “why” of these outcomes – what were the parameters and permutations at play in the documented examples and why were decisions made based upon those circumstances? It’s hard for a document or a database to tell that story. Would a best practice in one situation prove to be so in a new one with different factors at play? How about in different cultures? It is in the nuances of the stories and experiences of those involved that these differences can be discerned, and it is why “KM 2.0” has focused on those stories and the context of the content that is being shared. Technologies have evolved that enable folks to readily locate and share their stories, as well as to enhance them with links to the relevant documents, photos, videos, presentations and discussions. These technologies are proving Snowden right on a number of his other rules, such as the fact that we share best in the context of real need and we handle information best in fragmented form. (Source: Cognitive Edge) Hence, the popularity of real-time and mobile applications.
The evolution isn’t over. I think many would argue that we are in the middle of a renaissance, and that we are all struggling with how to handle the transitional period, because of course rapid innovation and global access produce new questions and problems to address – such as how and whether we should be archiving these fragmented stories and their related content.
In the meantime, to handle the transition, we need to employ other tools that help us and our stakeholders to work our way through the effort of sorting out our stories so that others can benefit from the trials and errors that went into creating them. Whether enabling Communities of Practice, storytelling and Anecdote Circles, After Action Reviews, Knowledge and World Cafes, or any of a number of other methods, it will give the next generation of leaders a leg up on innovating if we empower the telling of the “why” in decision making.
I try to make a point of taking photos of all of my plants every year, thinking that someday I’ll provide a photographic representation of what works to the next owner of my house and save them a lot of effort and time. Ok, I selfishly want them to continue caring for the yard and the things I’ve painstakingly nurtured over the years as well…What would be even better would be adding a video tour to that idea, with me providing descriptions and explanations as I walk around the yard. To make it even more effective, I should break the video down into short segments that the new person can access and digest as needed – arranged perhaps by corner of the yard (deck, outer island, family room bed, east side, west side, front bed, doorstep), or by stage in the process (planning, purchasing, executing, maintaining). Then I have to hope that the new person has enough interest to explore what I’ve offered, because you can drive the horse to water, as they say…but that’s another post about engagement.