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Personal Toolkit: Three thousand communities of practice

This article appears in the issue February 2004 [Volume 13, Issue 2]

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By Steve Barth

The most insightful KM comment I ever heard came from a guy in the seat next to me on a flight to Boston about six months ago. After takeoff, he reached into his briefcase and pulled out a stack of PowerPoint printouts for a presentation with knowledge management in the title. It turned out he was chief knowledge officer of an aerospace firm in Los Angeles.

He explained that his company had been pursuing knowledge management for several years. Because they were an organization of engineers, the initial emphasis was on managing documents and content. Lately, however, they had been more interested in establishing communities of practice. "But since we are 3,000 engineers," he said, "that means that we have 3,000 communities of practice."

On the surface, it sounded like complaining. But it was obvious that he also understood the deeper implications. For me, things that I'd heard over the last five years suddenly clicked into place, and many of the things that I had been trying to say about the relationship between organizational and individual KM took on additional meaning.Early in the history of a magazine where I used to work, we saw "personal" knowledge management as an issue, even if it was no more defined than adding the obvious word. When I began to write about PKM in 2000, we discovered a few others asking similar questions. We also discovered a few people already criticizing the idea.

Some people assumed that we were talking about private knowledge management--that is, managing one's personal learning and information in isolation. Some felt that we were abandoning enterprise initiatives in favor of grassroots efforts. The most stinging criticism came from those thinking about what people know together. They assumed we had gone too far in our interpretation of Larry Prusak's dictum, "Knowledge is what a knower knows."

"Taken literally, the need for a knower raises profound questions as to whether and how knowledge can exist outside the heads of individuals," Prusak and Liam Fahey wrote in a 1998 article. "Although knowledge can be represented in and often embedded in organizational processes, routines and networks, and sometimes in document repositories, it cannot truly originate outside the heads of individuals. Nor is it ever complete outside of an individual."

Some critics seemed to take PKM as a direct challenge to the emerging consensus that KM should be centered on conversations, collaboration and communities. The most extreme dismissal claimed, "It's not knowledge if it hasn't been socially validated."

Mi community, su community

Today there are many different definitions of personal knowledge management. But for me, the accusation that personal knowledge management is somehow antisocial or discounts the importance of collaborative learning and innovation is entirely inappropriate. The whole point is that collaborative work requires more of the individual—not less. And we are ill-equipped to handle those obligations and responsibilities.

The more people there are in a formal or informal network, the more connections and interactions each of us are likely to have. The more interactions we have, the more kinds of interaction we have, and therefore, the more kinds of interaction we have to be capable of handling. Meanwhile, the more interactions we have, the more obligations we have to share our knowledge with other people in the network.

No two members of the community will see that community in the same way. Each of us is the center of our own universe. Even if our communities have the same members, the difference between my community and your community is that I'm in the center of my network and you're the center of your network. We can each only perceive our networks from the perspective of our own nodes.

Awareness and abilities

Such egocentrism doesn't make PKM selfish any more than self-delusion makes us productive members of society. If we are to bring our minds to the table, contributing our observations and insights to the process of shared sense-making, then the first thing the group needs from us is self-awareness of our own abilities and aspirations. At the same time, the group needs each of us to carry our weight, to understand the issues, to listen and to appreciate other people's values, emotions and perspectives. In order to do that, each of us must master very mundane tools and techniques.

Without those things—both awareness and abilities—we are not qualified to be citizens of any collective effort.

No matter how many meetings we take, how many conferences we attend, how much we learn from others, help each other or come to understand things together, ultimately we have to take our enhanced understanding away from the group to act on decisions, to present at client meetings, to write reports in our cubicles.

On the plane to Boston, my companion had boiled all of this down to a very practical paradox. Even if all of his engineers wanted to share their knowledge with every other engineer, there would still be 3,000 slightly different communities of practice. The basic difference between those communities is that each community has a different leader, each leader sets the agenda in a slightly different way, with each of his engineers the center of their own networks.

In a global knowledge economy—or a local knowledge ecology—information skills and social skills have to go hand-in-hand to make collaboration possible. Information management tools and knowledge and communication tools have to be integrated for us to be productive workers in teams and communities. Knowledge managers should not be ashamed to promote both tools and techniques that individuals can use to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their own knowledge work.

Steve Barth writes and speaks frequently about KM, e-mail For more on personal knowledge management, see his Web site

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