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Knowledge transformation

This article appears in the issue October 2002 [Volume 11, Issue 9]

By David Weinberger

On the radio this morning was an ad from a local community college. "You got plans? Dreams? Want to get ahead?" it said. "Then go to college and get the knowledge you need."

I listened, admired the ad's lack of subtlety and thought about my own college education. I took in a lot of knowledge, some of which has actually been useful. For example, just the other day, after I remembered that the early Han dynasty ended in 220 AD, not 230 AD, I was finally able to figure out what was wrong with my car's carburetor. But, college changed me in more important ways than by giving me useful knowledge.

Besides the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll (I graduated in the class of '72) and other cultural influences, merely being in a community of learners changed me. Since you were undoubtedly changed in similar ways, I'll keep this brief:

The confrontation with different views changes the quality of our own views.

The recognition that there can be passionate disagreement within the boundaries of respect enables us to accept that other viewpoints may be valid.

The modes of public conversation sketch the riverbeds of our private thinking from then on.

The discovery that we often think best in public convinces us that our "brilliant ideas" are not merely our own.

Learning that our own ideas have a history gives us a way to understand ourselves.

Despite the familiarity of these ideas, they are ignored in too many discussions of the role of knowledge in business. Knowledge management that conceives of its role as marshalling, defending and doling out knowledge is like a college that has confused learning with stocking a library. Yes, of course we want our colleges to have great libraries, and we want our companies to have access to the best ideas that have arisen on its "campus." But we also want and need more.

Businesses shouldn't be colleges. They are aiming at something less interesting and more tangible. But a business executive serious enough to be thinking about investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a knowledge management system should remember the role of knowledge in his or her own most intense encounter with the stuff: college.

The value of knowledge isn't that we have it but that it changes us. Knowledge doesn't do that all on its own the way Kool-Aid changes water. Where knowledge changed us the most — college — it did so only because it put us into a community of learners. Having knowledge but not creating the environment in which it can change us is to do a disservice to knowledge's potential.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" (hyperorg.com), e-mail self@evident.com


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