Weinberger (2011) said “The network can make us smarter if we want to be smarter” (p. 91) yet suggests that we are losing the ability to collect, control or predict knowledge. My first inclination, reflecting on Russel Ackoff ‘s DIKW (data-information-knowledge–wisdom) hierarchy discussed by Weinberger, is to ask, “ How much of what we have on the network really knowledge?” Based on this hierarchy it would seem that what we have available on the internet is data; many points of data which need to be processed and connected in order to become information. This information then needs to be culled, prepared, judged and refined in order to filter out the non-essential and determine which information is most helpful. The information which makes it through this filter then becomes knowledge. In the past, because experts were always part of the filtering process, people could assume knowledge to be true and for justifiable reasons. Such curated knowledge could help us gain a better understanding of the world. Furthermore by comprehending and sharing knowledge we could become wise.
Experts are no longer a guaranteed part of the knowledge formation process which still begins with connecting data points. Now, instead of experts, networked individuals connect the dots and what was once the realm of the few becomes accessible to all. Knowledge will never be contained again; it is free and expanding and morphing. But since networked knowledge is no longer static – how do we ever hold onto it long enough to turn this knowledge into wisdom? And for the same reasons how can we even begin to contemplate managing it?
Wienberger uses another pyramid analogy in discussing how we amass knowledge. The masses are at the base with no particular organization or focus. However these crowds of individuals naturally come together in affinity groups (made very easy with social media) and discuss and share the data which yields information. But the next step, where the information would become knowledge, could be perverted if our affinity groups are too homogenous. In such cases we could instead get an echo chamber. Since it is only under the condition of diversity of opinion that knowledge can be formed echo chambers will not result in knowledge.
Expertise, previously so valuable in determining knowledge, loses its value because change is so rapid and also because everyone proclaims expertise. Bill Fisher in HBR argues that knowledge simply may no longer matter since it changes so quickly. However, soft skills and being human to one another will gain in importance. Thus we see that networked knowledge is facilitated by stronger human bonds. The focus on the importance of the human connection in knowledge creation and management is reinforced by Nancy Dixon in her discussion about knowledge management. She explains that initially knowledge management was about connecting people to content. In its next iteration it brought people together to learn from one another. In its present phase knowledge management requires leveraging collective knowledge and derives largely from conversation both virtual and face-to-face.
This Collective Knowledge is obtained from the convergence of varied perspectives which, through evolving conversation, come to a point of joint sensemaking - a hallmark of Leveraging Collective Knowledge. Heifetz and Laurie in their 2001 article in HBR explain that this integrated thinking is critical to solve today’s issues, which he calls adaptive challenges – things for which there are no definitive answers. Adaptive challenges are ideally suited for diverse conversational learning because they are unpredictable, the problem is loosely defined and there are many views on an acceptable solution.
Davenport in Whatever Happened to Knowledge Management explores the possibility that the web has destroyed the need for knowledge management and mentions that Google trends indicate that interest in searching for knowledge management has dropped off precipitously in the last several years. There is an irony in this fact because in so many ways Google is an incredible knowledge management system. Considering the ways that knowledge management has evolved, rather than killing it, I feel the web has enhanced it. The web has minimized the importance of an organization seeking to cull and store all of its data in any static form or attempting to limit access to anything other than proprietary information. But it is certainly maintaining a very agile and diverse database and enabling us all to connect in a myriad of ways to access, share, process, and evolve that information into knowledge.
The democratization of knowledge demands we stay connected to others in order to make sense out of the data. This reality alters the role of a leader Nancy Dixon reminds us the leader needs to play a key role in fostering the conversation rather than providing the answer. To help achieve this Heifetz discusses several components that leaders need to take to foster adaptive learning and effective knowledge management. He recommends that leaders can promote conversation by helping frame the issues, challenging roles and unproductive norms, allowing flexibility, and exposing conflicts so they can be assessed and addressed by a diverse group.
Building on Jarche’s emphasis on the importance of sharing, reflection and social learning, a leader needs to create opportunities for all levels of learning to occur; opportunities which depend on expertise as well as opportunities to co-solve problems. Jarche refers to several elements of learning including Intra-Organizational Learning which moves the organization from personally-directed to group-directed learning and creates strong learning networks. These discussions reminded me of the concept of conversational space which I had featured in a class I designed a few years back. Kolb, Baker and Jensen discuss the concept which I feel has particular relevance for leaders trying to foster networked knowledge creation and management. A main element of conversational space focuses on a leader establishing a safe space where people with differing opinions can deepen their understanding. How well a leader prepares the conversational space will determine the degree to which the conversation in the space promotes learning or gets in its way. The full theory is fascinating and I believe very relevant to a discussion of present day knowledge management. However, for this current piece I will conclude by mentioning conversational learning’s emphasis on learning occurring in the tension that exists between listening and speaking. These tensions are created through the interface of various opposites and results in integrated knowing very similar to Heifetz’ collective knowledge mentioned earlier. Therefore a leader will foster networked knowledge management to the extent she enables conversation, creates the space and encourages the dualities.
What is the next phase of knowledge management? Are our brains ready to connect to the extent the network can avail? How do we select the elements of knowledge management that will serve society tomorrow? And finally, can knowledge be managed anymore? No complete answer to any of these but certainly some new elements to consider.
Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.