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The “t”, “i” and “e” in knowledge

Individuals, groups, organizations and nations compete based on what they know and what the outcomes are of their "knowing." The challenge is in enabling, creating, sharing, leveraging and increasing the availability of knowledge. Old news, you might say. Well, if the knowledge challenge seems resolved already, take, for example, the most basic principles of tacit, implicit and explicit knowledge. Almost every workshop presentation on knowledge management starts with a definition of tacit, implicit and explicit knowledge. Implicit and tacit knowledge are used interchangeably but really mean very different things. Further complicating the matter are cultural and geographical subtleties. For example, explicit knowledge does not exist in the minds of most North Americans and Europeans--for the Japanese, it does.

Without even considering those epistemological debates, global organizations eventually find themselves grappling with the challenges of sharing expertise, information and ideas across cultures that simply do not start out in the same state. That was highlighted during the first Knowledge Village conference, which was held in June at EM Lyon, a business school in Lyon, France. Knowledge management and organizational strategy thought leaders from Australia, Brazil, Japan, Canada, the United States, Wales, England and France joined senior practitioners and students being introduced to the topic of KM. The three-day event demonstrated how differently people communicate, how difficult it is for Western and Eastern cultures to exchange knowledge tacitly and explicitly, and how assumptions--or cultural patterns, as Cynefin Centre's Dave Snowden described them--influence the implicit knowledge to which people subconsciously refer. Perhaps most importantly, the event illustrated that no matter how many differences exist, a common understanding can be achieved without people becoming like each other.

For example, an observer of North America and Europe would postulate that in order to reach their goals, organizations have historically adopted a set of rigorous, explicit processes and information technology solutions. Usually an organization states upfront that the purpose of the implementation of such processes and technical applications is to improve the ability to innovate and achieve product or service leadership; to improve customer, partner or employee relations; or to be more effective and efficient.

At the beginning of addressing the business goal, leaders or managers have likely already decided what success will look like. The end state will be explicitly discussed, choices will be explicitly made and a direction will be established through a series of formal communications. What may not be clear is how to get there. The "getting there" is resolved through business planning, project and people management. In planning and managing, knowledge, information and people become objects that are acted upon. To a greater or lesser extent, those objects are considered necessary to control to deliver a predetermined end state.

In juxtaposition, an observer of Japanese organizations would suggest that there are equally rigorous processes and use of information technology solutions for very similar organizational goals. While they have an objective--to be competitive in the marketplace--what is not that obvious is the significantly different position from which the work begins. The Japanese have what they call "ba." Ba is not an explicit state. Nonaka defines it as "a shared context in motion, in which knowledge is shared, created and utilized … Ba is an existential place where participants share their contexts and create meanings through interactions." (See Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, "Hitotsubashi on Knowledge Management," John Wiley and Sons, 2004.)

While that may sound too academic, it is a fundamental, implicit assumption for the Japanese in all activities, including knowledge. The desired end state is likely expressed in the form of a metaphor, but is a real objective nevertheless. What exists is a shared subconscious understanding that enables a diversity of perspectives to co-exist in seeking the best solution. The "getting somewhere"--whatever the objective--is a problem solved through consideration of the organization in terms of its relationship as part of the environment. The Japanese believe they consider the world in terms of their being part of it rather than they being in control of it. For them, it is not something to be acted upon.

In this world of ever-shrinking distances, there are three key reasons why this matters now:

1. The perceived failure of information technology and, perhaps more correctly, the failure of people to realize the potential of information technology as a strategic tool that enables the exchange of information, expertise and ideas.

2. The limitations of explicitly organizing ideas, information and knowledge in terms of value and in terms of individual cognitive processes, which decision-makers must rely on to make choices. In fact, especially in high-risk businesses like healthcare, aviation and nuclear power, the absolute reliance on explicit information may actually cause the wrong choices to be made.

3. The work force is aging for many organizations and even nations. Other organizations and nations are seeing a boom in young adults taking on increasing roles of responsibility. Those demographic shifts create economic challenges that rely heavily on the ability to transfer the most important knowledge.

The three challenges

The failure of organizations to understand the real potential of information technology may be one reason why some people say KM is dead in North America. It is not "dead" in other countries. In some, like Brazil and the United Kingdom, it is flourishing. People in organizations who sought technology as the silver bullet for delivering on a knowledge strategy are now aware there are limitations. That is not to say that information technology cannot play a significant role. It can and it does. How likely would a solution succeed without any technology element?

In the early days, the people and process management components of KM may have been underinvested. As organizations move from IT alone to an increased awareness of the complexity of organizational knowledge and its value, adoption of methods and techniques such as social complexity, narrative and "context" (vs. content management) help us comprehend how explicit, implicit and tacit knowledge impact sharing ideas, expertise and information. Europe and Australia may have been more aware of the need for that holistic view as evidenced by their adoption of methods like soft systems management.

The absolute reliance on explicit information may actually cause the wrong choices to be made, simply because an individual does not question the patterns or the protocols that hierarchy or socialization ingrain. Take, for example, the issue of patient safety, which is a challenge felt across the globe. While humans are humans, there are enough variations to make patient care choices complex. The sheer number of choices combined with the mobility of each of us requires some type of technology-based information management.

When a physician has a doubt, though, there is a greater likelihood that she or he will choose to contact a peer rather than take "direction" from a technology solution. How much of what each physician knows is documented? The best that can be said is that it varies. And who spends the most time with a patient and is likely to intuit or identify potentially adverse affects? Likely that is the nursing staff. Interestingly, hospitals are revisiting some of their patient care practices, including the use of patient care teams and the availability of "safe" places to share knowledge. Those types of activities intend to create common knowledge--some degree of which will never become explicit.

Many European and North American organizations are facing a significant work force change in the next decade. That change is based on the retirement of the baby boomers, i.e. work force aging. Other nations like Brazil, China and India are seeing a large number of youth entering the work force. With those generational shifts comes the recognition that not all information (and especially knowledge) can be captured, structured and managed through a life cycle. Of course, it would be naïve to assume that there isn't a place for such a process, but the benefits of managing information are significantly dependent on the value of it.

There is something to be understood about the way in which individuals seek out information--usually first approaching people they trust. As generational shifts occur, it is important to understand the significant differences in how information and knowledge is shared--both in terms of technology use and in terms of face-to-face communication. Mentoring and coaching may be best achieved by skipping a generation (grandparents and grandchildren often are more open in their communication than children are with their own parents). Narrative techniques may work more effectively to share the essence of values, beliefs and community. Being able to leverage implicit understanding may actually be essential for effective sharing of explicit information.

In Lyon, about 100 individuals met from around the world--professors, the KM "intelligentsia," consultants, practitioners, students and executive managers. We started out with an invitation from Denis Servant, a professor at EM Lyon, to experience the differences ... a profound difference in the starting state of implicit ... a significant difference in the degree of reliance on tacit and explicit information. After three days in which participants felt ba, comprehended the sensory overload of explicit information, participated in a variety of exchanges on Nonaka, social complexity (Snowden) and soft systems methodology (Peter Checkland, professor at Lancaster University Management School), we realized we face many of the same human and organizational issues. We are distinct in how we approach them. There was no need to become each other's disciples or even to agree with each other. What we left with was a profound sense of responsibility to explore outside our known world, to bring that understanding to the knowledge strategies for which we are responsible, starting with recognizing the experiential differences between implicit, tacit and explicit knowledge.

Mary Lee Kennedy is principal, The Kennedy Group, e-mail mkennedy@maryleekennedy.com.

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