The Story of our Work

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A while back, hereticalpoetical wrote a post about knowledge transfer and social capital which started me thinking about how knowledge bounces around in the workplace. One of the key points she mentions is relationships and trust, which she continues in a later post, discussing how knowledge management is concerned with relationships. I’m going to go alongside that and say that knowledge transfer is greatly affected by stories.

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Boundaries on Awareness

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The past few weeks we’ve been reading all about tacit knowledge and the benefits it can have. It took me a while to figure out what tacit knowledge was, and – as can be seen by my last post – I’m still learning. This week I was somewhat glad to take a different perspective, because it’s something that’s been itching at the back of my mind: what if what we know is wrong?

Kumar and Chakrabarti (2012) take on a case study of the challenger disaster, discussing it in terms of bounded knowledge. I won’t throw a bunch of quotes out this time; instead I want to focus on this idea of “bounded knowledge” and, more specifically, how it relates to tacit knowledge. For all the details, I highly recommend reading Kumar and Chakrabarti (2012) – they lay it out in a way I don’t have space for. Right now, I’m going to lay it out in a simplified way that makes sense to me.

Imagine your brain is a large bin. All the knowledge you have is inside this bin, piled in randomly like a tub of legos straight from the store. The lego pieces are color-coded based on some internal scheme, and they are all different sizes and shapes. When you need the knowledge, you pull it out of the bin. You know – tacitly – that all the legos of the same color relate to each other. It’s like breathing: you don’t have to think about it, you just know, your body knows, and it takes no conscious thought. That tacit knowledge puts a filter on your brain so when you’re working on a “blue” project you automatically – like breathing – pull all the “blue” lego pieces out. Related knowledge is pulled to the forefront.

But what if the piece of knowledge that keeps your blue legos together is coded green?

Kumar and Chakrabarti (2012) say that the green lego is outside the bounds of our awareness. Yes, we have the knowledge. But our tacit brains have already dismissed the knowledge as irrelevant or unimportant to the current project. We’ve filtered it out long before we consciously consider the knowledge.

So tacit knowledge – tacit knowing – can sometimes make us blind to things right in front of us. In a stable environment with time for testing and retesting that may not be a huge issue. But – as can be seen with the Challenger example – in other high-risk environments it can be disastrous.

Which moves me pretty quickly to Massingham (2010) and one quote I can’t resist repeating: “the brain does not work in the way decision trees suggest it should” (465). Well, mine doesn’t so I can certainly agree with that. I went from bounded awareness to legos. But Massingham (2010) seems to be dancing around a similar topic: in a high-risk environment with no clear way of prioritizing work, we automatically create tacit filters which tell us what to do first. But these filters can cause seemingly unimportant requests to fall to the bottom of the pile, where they wait for longer than they should for a resolution. For an organization with many requests coming in daily, such prioritization methods can cause delays to last weeks or months. By that point it may take more effort than when it was first presented, or the situation may have changed. This can cost the business money, time, or resources – and in high-risk environments could result in even larger disasters. What if an ambulance doesn’t have insulin because checking the supplies was deemed a low-priority task, and they’ve responded to a case with a diabetic?

So what do we do? If we can willingly ignore knowledge, and if the way we prioritize tasks based on the knowledge we have is wrong, is there any way to “fix” things? It seems the problem lies with our tacit knowledge and with tacit filters, which is with knowledge we can’t articulate and may not even be aware we have. I’m going to make another leap here to Huber (1991). While this article is older than the other two, and is focused more on organizational learning, I want to call out a few links between Huber (1991) and potential answers to these questions. One of the components of learning Huber (1991) talks about is “unlearning”. Not to get too Star Wars, but we must “unlearn what [we] have learned” before we can make new filters for our knowledge. With tacit knowledge this is difficult, and requires a good deal of practice. But Yoda was pretty smart – and if Luke can “unlearn” that a spaceship is too heavy for a single man to lift, I’m sure I can “unlearn” a few things as well.

Another idea Huber (1991) brings up is this thought that sometimes organizations have knowledge but they don’t get to the right place (p. 101). It gets back to that lego metaphor again. Department A has red legos and Department B has yellow legos. Department B could really use a red lego, but has no idea that Department A has a red legos. And Department A doesn’t know Department B needs red legos, so they never offer to share. It’s bounded awareness on a larger scale, where the organization is a single brain and departmental boundaries – tacit knowledge that IT information stays with IT and business knowledge stays with the business team and operational knowledge stays with operations – allows an organization to only be aware of information specific to a certain situation, no matter how relevant or important information coded for another department might be.

916 Words.

References:

Huber, G. P. (1991). Organizational learning: The contributing processes and the literatures. Organization Science, 2(1), 88­115. URL:http://www.jstor.org/stable/2634941

Kumar J, A., & Chakrabarti, A. (2012). Bounded awareness and tacit knowledge: Revisiting Challenger disaster. Journal of Knowledge Management, 16(6), 934­949. doi:10.1108/13673271211276209 

Massingham, P. (2010). Knowledge risk management: A framework.Journal of Knowledge Management, 14(3), 464­485. doi:10.1108/13673271011050166

Tacplicit Knowledge – When is knowing both tacit and explicit?

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I’m going to start with the last article I’ve recently read, as it left me with a gut feeling of “WTF?”. Scott Cook and John Brown are talking about explicit and tacit knowledge, just like so many others, and all of the sudden I’m not sure I know what it means anymore. According to these two authors,

Each of the four categories that come from the explicit/tacit and individual/group distinctions identifies a unique and irreducible form of knowledge. We see each of the four as on equal footing with the other three, and hold that no one of them can be derived from or changed into one of the others. (p. 383)

I was good with each form of knowledge being unique; I was even okay with them being irreducible (no one form of knowledge is more valuable than another, after all); but to say that one can’t come from or change into another? That threw me for a good loop or three.

Explicit knowledge is knowledge which can be articulated. Tacit knowledge is knowledge which is known but we don’t have the words to say. We learned this from Polanyi. So when we gain the ability to speak about our tacit knowledge in words and express this knowledge in a way others can understand, aren’t we changing the knowledge from our own tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge? Isn’t this explicit knowledge derived from our own tacit knowledge? Cook and Brown helped me a little more with their idea with the example of riding a bicycle. The explain that explicit information isn’t always effective without experience:

In order to acquire the tacit knowledge, a novice has to spend a certain amount of time on a bicycle. Indeed, it would even be possible for someone to be able to say in great technical detail what must be done to keep a bicycle upright, yet still be unable to ride one. No amount of explicit knowledge alone can enable someone to ride; it simply cannot enable all the necessary epistemic work. (p. 385)

But what really struck me with this example was the idea that a person does not lose the tacit knowledge when that knowledge becomes explicit. They started this seedling of an idea in me that you can know something that is both explicit and tacit at the same time. Both a describable fact and instinct. A way you act without thinking, but can also explain in words why and how.

So while I’ve got this hamster in my head spinning away at this new concept, the other readings I’ve taken in since my last post seem much easier to take in. Nory Jones and John Mahon had a good deal to say about knowledge in what they call “high velocity/turbulent environments”. These environments, if I understand their argument correctly, are places where knowledge is constantly changing and where inaction (perhaps due to lack of knowledge or waiting for knowledge) can be as detrimental as the wrong action. In my head, these are the places where “I need to know, and I need to know now, because if I don’t make a decision in the next 30 seconds someone else is going to make that decision for me and that may be very, very bad.” Not many of us experience situations like these. Jones and Mahon use examples of the military, but these could also be environments such as Emergency Rooms, fires, natural disasters, crimes, or accidents.

Despite my lack of knowledge on military knowledge management, there were several things that stood out to me. One is that they do the complete opposite of what Cook and Brown say most do: they put tacit knowledge above explicit (not the other way around).

Although explicit knowledge is important to the operation of any organization – it is tacit knowledge that is crucial to survival and long-term success. Tacit knowledge is far more difficult to describe and explain – it is reflected in the procedures, rooted in action and is acquired by the sharing of experiences, by observation, and by imitation. (Jones and Mahon, p. 777)

Oh my, what strong words you have! Explicit knowledge is merely important while tacit knowledge is “crucial to survival”. There is a definite ranking of knowledge here, and it states that our skills – things we know by experience and by doing – are more important than our ability to describe them. In essence, they place practice over theory. But they don’t discount explicit knowledge. It is still important to operations within in organization. In short, we need both. (That hamster is still running on that wheel, contemplating the impact of Cook and Brown.)

After reading several of my classmates mentioning the case of Starbucks, I couldn’t help but want to read it myself. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite fit in a discussion on the tacit and explicit qualities of knowledge very well. But then again, maybe it does. Alton Chua and Snehasish Banerjee study Customer Knowledge Management (CKM) and using social media as access to that knowledge. The information found  on social media forums is almost entirely explicit. The customer has put his or her feelings into words and presented them to the organization. The organization also uses words to interact and respond to the customer. It seems there is no room for that tacit knowledge we just had described as “crucial”. And yet, there is.

While the social media interactions are explicit, analyzing tweets, comments, reviews, suggestions, and other posts has an element of tacit skill. Chua and Banerjee mention

Twitter helps Starbucks quickly manage rumors and misconceptions among customers. (p. 243)

They then give the example of Starbucks correcting a rumor that they were able to end a rumor that they were helping to fund Isreal’s army. But how did they know that rumor was important? How did they know that rumor was more important than an older complaint or a more recent question? This was more likely the application of tacit knowledge (knowledge of the current situation, current political trends, etc) than of an explicit “if this then this” guide.

And even after all of this that hamster is still in my head trying to decide if tacit and explicit knowing can happen simultaneously, what that means, and if it would be appropriate to ask for “tacit understanding” of a task in job posting.

References:

Chua, A. Y. K., & Banerjee, S. (2013). Customer knowledge management via social media: The case of Starbucks. Journal of Knowledge Management, 17(2), 237249.
doi:10.1108/13673271311315196

Cook, S. D. N., & Brown, J. S. (1999). Bridging epistemologies: The generative dance between organizational knowledge and organizational knowing. Organization science, 10(4), 381400. doi:10.1287/orsc.10.4.381

Jones, N. B. & Mahon, J. F. (2012) Nimble knowledge transfer in high velocity/turbulent environments. Journal of Knowledge Management, 16(5), 774788.
doi:10.1108/13673271211262808

Polanyi, Michael. (2009). The tacit dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1966) URL: http://www.worldcat.org/isbn/0226672980

Social Interaction, Wikis, and Knowledge Management

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Though we don’t always realize it, knowledge creation and knowledge management can be a very social activity. Sure, it’s not the same as going out and having drinks with your friends, but it still revolves around communication and effective open dialogue to promote efficiency and reduce errors. Rachel’s post on Social Mores of Knowledge Management mentions how corporate entities become individuals, even though those entities are in fact large groups of people. And the people who work inside those corporate “individuals” sometimes have different views, as Kamrynwies mentions. She discusses knowledge hoarding and knowledge hiding in her post about knowledge transfer, two concepts which seem to have motivations based on social relationships (she specifically mentions that of an associate and his or her “boss”).

This idea of knowledge management (or non-management) as social interactions immediately brings to my mind social media. Of course, when we think of “social media” we think of FaceBook, chat rooms, Twitter, MMORPGs, Instagram, and other similar web features. Tay Pei Lyn Grace‘s article, however, is a reminder that not all social media is public. Grace is focused on the use of Wikis as knowledge management tools, and mentions three cases where wikis were implemented for corporate purposes. (I was also surprised to see the idea of a “personal wiki” in her article – sounds like something interesting to try!) Grace states wikis can potentially fulfill the hope for:

a democratic, accessible community of users responsible for its own content, supported by an open model of knowledge creation and communication (p. 64).

But that did not strike a cord with me as much as what she said on the next page:

It is a collaborative space due to its total freedom, ease of use and access, simple and uniform navigational conventions and is also a way to organize and cross-linked knowledge. It is a webpage created using wiki engine allowing a process of bottom up editing, where users can delete, edit and add content. Users may read the contents using a web browser. The expertise is not in the hands of the few, but rather emerges from the combined efforts of many. (p. 65)

The users control the content, adding their expertise and experiences easily, and serves the purpose of collecting, linking, and communicating knowledge. In my head, this moves knowledge management up from simple documentation to something like a knowledge management 2.0. Similar to Web 2.0, this moves knowledge management from a flat document (like a manual) to a dynamic document they can interact with (add, change, or remove content).

One of the key principles of Web 2.0 Moria Levy mentions is that “The service improves automatically the more it is used (by the people)” (p. 122). While wikis may not improve automatically, they definitely improve as users interact with the system and tailor content to suit the needs of the organization. Wikis can only improve if they are used. It is a step towards an improvement of knowledge management tools, making them more interactive and user-friendly.

Not everyone knows how to effectively maintain these wiki databases, however, which brings me to Lam and Chua’s strategy of knowledge outsourcing. Don’t worry – it’s not as large a leap as it seems. Lam and Chua discuss different aspects of knowledge outsourcing, but what struck me the most was the following quote on outsourced knowledge:

Such knowledge tends to be less contextual and proprietary in nature and can be produced without significant prior knowledge about the organisation’s setting or its internal workings. However, such knowledge also tends to be more narrowly focused and specific to a problem area. (p. 40)

They mention strategies such as outsourcing only a portion of the IT team (p. 31) which, in my mind, frees up resources to work on crucial business processes. Going from the idea of a wiki, a corporation could outsource maintenance of the wiki code and technical issues, while internal SMEs (subject matter experts) still manage the content of the pages.

Effective knowledge management has a cornerstone of shared language and shared goals. In the case of a corporate “individual”, the shared goal is to help the company do well. In order to do so, those who work for that corporation must find an effective means of creating, communicating, and sharing knowledge (without hoarding or hiding knowledge). Whether this is through wikis or other means is best determined by each organization, but the idea of an interactive form of knowledge management which can be constantly updated with new information is appealing. If necessary, some knowledge can be outsourced to experts outside the company who have specialized knowledge about systems, system management, or specific areas of knowledge. Bottom line, though, we cannot be completely successful without social interaction – without communication and knowledge from others.

 

Resources:

Grace, T. P. L. (2009). Wikis as a knowledge management tool. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(4), 64-74. doi:10.1108/13673270910971833

Lam, W., & Chua, A. Y. (2009). Knowledge outsourcing: An alternative strategy for knowledge management. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(3), 28-43. doi:10.1108/13673270910962851

Levy, M. (2009). Web 2.0 implications on knowledge management. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(1), 120-134. doi:10.1108/13673270910931215

Language and Social Knowledge

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I’m one of those people who like to write in books as I read them. What I write isn’t exactly notes; instead I underline lines I find important or star things I want to come back to. Occasionally I’ll even add big question marks or references to other authors. So today I’m going to share some of my marginalia.

Language has a direct and important function in social relations, for it is the means by which people discuss and exchange information, ask questions, and conduct business in society. -Nahapiet and Ghoshal, p. 253

This quote had a big star next to it. Language is, after all, very important. Without a shared language I couldn’t be reading this article, and without a shared language you wouldn’t understand a word of this post. This seems like a far leap from last week’s post, where RachelAudrey, and I talked about Polanyi and tacit knowledge, but it doesn’t take long for Nahapiet and Ghoshal to say what I think links us back to that very topic:

…language filters out of awareness those events for which terms do not exist in the language and filters in those activities for which terms do exist. -Nahapiet and Ghoshal, p. 253-4

If we do not have the words to speak of events – that is, if we cannot articulate them properly – then language filters out our awareness of them. Doesn’t this mean they become tacit? Knowledge we have, but cannot say? Something we can do like muscle memory, but don’t know how to explain? Which leads me to believe the second half of the statement concerns explicit knowledge. We have a word for it, we can explain it, we can write it down on a piece of paper and say “do that” and have someone else know exactly what we mean.

Nahapiet and Ghoshal are attempting to discuss the creation of social and intellectual capital in organizations, so it’s not a far leap to start talking about knowledge management here. In fact, reading through their discussions on types of knowledge I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s exactly what they were talking about themselves. My mind went back to Hansen, Nohria, and Tierney‘s terms of “People-to-People” and “People-to-Documents”, but Alavi and Leidner have a better way of saying it:

The socialization mode refers to conversion of tacit knowledge to new tacit knowledge through social interactions and shared experience among organizational members (e.g. apprenticeship). -p. 116

By working together we can share that knowledge for which we have no words. It’s how we can learn from those with more experience even when they cannot articulate exactly what it is they do. And it all comes back to that starred line about language. Both sets of authors are concerned about knowledge creation, and both sets are also concerned about language – how we express what it is we know, and how we become aware of it.

…tacit knowledge is converted to explicit knowledge and shared among individuals through the process of dialogue and collaboration. -Alavi and Leidner, p. 116

This statement tells us, flat out, that tacit knowledge can become explicit knowledge once we find the words to talk about it. That’s what a “dialogue” is: a conversation between two or more people.

After these readings, it seemed only natural to move on to an article with the title “Why Should I Share? Examining Social Capital and Knowledge Contributions in Electronic Networks of Practice”, but I must say I found myself disappointed with this study. Aside from the large amount of information it contains (and the numbers), Wasko and Faraj seem more concerned with the motivational aspect than the benefits. Which, in hindsight, can be one interpretation of the title. The main concern I had with the article was that it concerned electronic networks being used to share knowledge, but didn’t seem to address the underlying issue that electronic networks can only share knowledge which can be expressed. That is: if we do not have the words to articulate the knowledge, we are hardly able to answer the question despite our knowledge. They state that

Individuals contribute knowledge to electronic networks of practice when they perceive that it enhances their professional reputations, and to some extent because it is enjoyable to help others. -p. 53

This, however, seems incomplete to me. It doesn’t seem to capture the nature of dialogue and conversation where one person has a problem and another has an answer, but the one with the answer doesn’t know how to express that answer to the one with the problem. It opens a dialogue where I want to help you, and we muddle through together until we find the right words for the right situation and my tacit knowledge becomes at least a little more explicit.

 

Resources:

Alavi, M., & Leidner, D. E. (2001). Knowledge management and knowledge management systems: Conceptual foundations and research issues. MIS Quarterly, 25(1), 107136.
URL:http://www.jstor.org/stable/3250961

Nahapiet, J., & Ghoshal, S. (1998). Social capital, intellectual capital, and the organizational advantage. The Academy of Management Review, 23(2), 242266.
URL:http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/259373

Wasko, M. M., & Faraj, S. (2005). Why should I share? Examining social capital and knowledge contribution in electronic networks of practice. MIS quarterly, 29(1), 3557.
doi:http://www.jstor.org/stable/25148667

 

 

The Tacit Dimension – What We Know

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Polanyi is one of those authors who makes my head spin. The Tacit Dimension is not a text I can read lightly in a few hours. Curl up with a cup of tea and a blanket? Not exactly. This is the kind of text I needed to take in small portions so I could process each piece, and even then I’m not sure I really took in all of it. Early on in the text he starts with the heavy statements. “We know more than we can tell” (p. 4)? Really? Well, yes. Ask me where a specific key is on the keyboard and I have to hunt-and-peck. Ask me to type my thoughts and I don’t even have to look at the keyboard to do 70 WPM or more. My fingers know where the keys are so I don’t need to think about it. That’s an easy example; I’m sure we all have things we know, but when asked to explain how we know we’re left floundering.

I don’t think I really understood all of what Polanyi was saying until Kimble helped me through it. While I was able to take in the words and some of the theory, it was still something of a question. Kimble tells us that, for Polanyi:

Although it is possible to make certain aspects of knowledge explicit and encode it; something can only be known when this explicit component is combined with the tacit in the mind of the receiver.

Using Kimble to navigate Polanyi, I came to the idea that it’s like giving driving directions. You can tell someone to turn right on B Street and then turn left on C Street, but you automatically assume they have some knowledge of driving. You’ve only codified part of the directions. You don’t tell them “buckle up, turn on the car, check to make sure you have enough gas, check your mirrors, back out of the driveway…”. Even assuming your directions don’t start at the beginning, they don’t include directions to stop at every stop sign, to turn on turn signals, or to watch out for that school zone. There is the explicit knowledge that we codify and share (the directions we give) and the tacit knowledge we learn by doing (the directions we forget to give because we forget we even take those actions).

Getting all that tacit knowledge codified is extremely difficult not only because tacit knowledge is difficult (sometimes impossible) to completely articulate, but because all the small little details that go with tacit knowledge are also extremely difficult to take in as someone trying to learn. Hansen, Nohria, and Tierney discuss choosing a Knowledge Management Strategy, and mention two strategies in connection to consulting firms: People-To-Documents and People-To-People. People-to-Documents they describe as a codified system of instructions I couldn’t help but think of as a software “help” index. People-to-People they describe as a way to share tacit knowledge. They point out:

Managers sometimes try to turn inherently tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. That can lead to serious problems. […] they discovered that technicians learned from one another by sharing stories about how they had fixed the machines. The expert system could not replicate the nuance and detail that were exchanged in face-to-face conversations.

So does that mean all our knowledge should be tacit? Well, no, I don’t think so. Some knowledge can be codified – like those driving directions – and that codified knowledge gets us most of the way to where we need to be. The rest we can only learn by doing. While I retain some knowledge of what I hear and retain more of what I write, the things I do stay with me longer. In some cases I may not remember the name of the street I need to travel, but if I’m in the driver’s seat I know exactly where to turn. In yet other situations I may not have the tacit knowledge and once again be a new driver testing out my temps for the first time.

References:

Hansen, M. T., Nohria, N., & Tierney, T. (1999). What’s your strategy for managing knowledge. Harvard Business Review. URL: https://hbr.org/1999/03/whats-your-strategy-for-managing-knowledge

Kimble, C. (2013). Knowledge management, codification and tacit knowledge. Information Research, 18(2). URL: http://www.informationr.net/ir/182/paper577.html

Polanyi, Michael. (2009). The tacit dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1966) URL: http://www.worldcat.org/isbn/0226672980