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Tribal knowledge

Here's how to get yourself fired tout de suite from your job as a marketing VP at a software company. I know because I saw it happen. During your first week, mark your territory by coming in way early one morning and posting enthusiastic, morale-lifting slogans on every floor of the building, including where the developers dwell. These posters should say things like "We're not all in the Sales Department, but we're all salespeople," and "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog." The engineers will immediately think you're ridiculous, and it will only be a matter of time before you're laughed out of the business.

But why? All you did was tell the truth! It's true that we're all salespeople even if we're not in the Sales Department, and it's true that it doesn't matter how big the dog is ...OK, so that one isn't entirely true--I'll put my money on the Rottweiler going up against a Chihuahua rat-dog any day--but the idea behind it is sort of true.

It reminds me of a story told by Soren Kierkegaard, the religious existentialist philosopher (actually, technically you can be any two of those three things, but not all three) who wrote in the middle of the 19th century. He tells of a man released from an insane asylum after many years. He's desperate to be taken as a normal person. So he asks himself what it is that sane people believe. They believe the world is round! Aha! He puts a rock in his pocket so that he'll be reminded to say this true thing every time the rock hits his thigh. He happily walks through town, tipping his hat at everyone he meets, saying, "[Whack!] The world is round. [Bang!] The world is round. [Thud!] The world is round..." Kierkegaard calls this "objective madness," as opposed to the normal type of madness where the person suffers from too much subjectivity.

Truth is not enough. Knowledge is tribal. It has to be relevant to the tribe. It has to be expressed in the way appropriate to the tribe. It has to come from someone in the tribe or else it must be delivered in the way the tribe chooses to receive foreign ideas. Marketing slugs who post happy-talk on the R&D bulletin board are about as welcome as engineering nerds who get sarcastic at the Marketing VP retirement party--even if everyone is only saying true things.

This is why thinking that knowledge management is about building central repositories of true and useful information misses the point. It is objective madness.

David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.

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