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The Knowledge Conversation

Is knowledge an asset?

It'd be nice if it were because, not only do we know how to manage our assets, we also can tell that an asset has value. Otherwise we wouldn't call it an asset, would we, hmm?

And, yes, some of the stuff called "knowledge" is clearly an asset in the semi-traditional sense. The formulation of best practices, for example, counts as an asset (although why it makes sense to call it "knowledge" occasionally escapes me).

But the sort of breakthrough companies look for from KM -- that's implicitly promised by KM and the hype surrounding it -- won't come from knowledge that's an asset.

The promise of KM is that it'll make your organization smarter. That's not an asset. It's not a thing of any sort.

Suppose for the moment that knowledge is a conversation. Suppose making your organization smarter means raising the level of conversation.

After all, the aim of KM was never to take knowledge from the brain of a smart person and bury it inside some other container like a document or a database. The aim was to share it, and that means getting it talked about.

This view puts KM at the heart of business since business is a conversation. It's not just that good managers manage by having lots of conversations (as sort of pointed out in Winograd & Flores' groundbreaking book Understanding Computers and Cognition -- which also has one of the highest mentioned-to-actual-read ratios). All the work that moves the company forward is accomplished through conversations -- oral, written, and expressed in body language.

So, here's a definition of that pesky and borderline elitist phrase, "knowledge worker": A knowledge worker is someone whose job entails having really interesting conversations at work.

The characteristics of conversations map to the conditions for genuine knowledge generation and sharing: They're unpredictable interactions among people speaking in their own voice about something they're interested in. The conversants implicitly acknowledge that they don't have all the answers (or else the conversation is really a lecture) and risk being wrong in front of someone else. And conversations overcome the class structure of business, suspending the org chart at least for a little while.

If KM aims at making your organization smarter and that in turn means increasing the quality of conversations, can we please avoid the temptation to create something called "Conversation Management"?

Here's my new bumpersticker: "Let's get the M out of KM!"

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