The value of making things explicit

I haven't vanished from the face of the earth, I've just been traveling with the family.  Thanks to the reader who sent me an email to ask if everything is okay. 

The classic problem of knowledge management is that most knowledge is tacit / implicit, but KM Systems want us to get things written out and "into the system."  This problem has been around longer than the concept of KM, of course.  David Snowden plays with the Michael Polanyi ideas of tacit knowledge to give us these "rules" of knowledge management (paraphrase):

  • I can never tell as much as I know.
  • I can never write down as much as I can say.
  • I never know what I know until I need to know it.

In my mind, this has usually been a trump card played when discussing content management systems or expert systems, saying that these systems can never be as good as getting people together and letting them converse and share stories.  The conversation either stops or devolves into a discussion of tacit and implicit knowledge.

But in other situations, getting things out in the open or down on paper are just as valuable as direct tacit knowledge transfer via conversation.  Jerry Ash of AOK just told this entertaining story about a state senator:

The senator stood and orated for an hour to an empty chamber.  When asked why he bothered, he responded, "I didn't know what I thought about the issue until I heard what I had to say."

Jerry recounted this story in response to my saying that I wouldn't bother writing this blog if I didn't think anyone was reading. 

In this sense, it is the very act of writing (or speaking) that is the knowledge opportunity.  Writing and drawing are geared around organizing my thoughts and getting them out into the world, so that I can "see" what I am thinking.  This can be in the form of text, mind maps, cocktail napkin drawings, or speaking to a crowd of one.  How many ideas do I have bouncing around in my head that never see the light of day because I don't articulate them in some way?

Making thoughts and ideas "visible" is half the battle for knowledge sharing.  This is what Snowden is arguing with the points above.  It is also why KM has been so interested in things like document management and otherwise "recording" knowledge.  If you don't have some kind of trace of the knowledge, there is a much smaller chance that you can track down the people with the the knowledge.

3 Comment(s)

Brett Author Profile Page said:

Jack,

Great observations, I especially like Jerry's little anecdote. A professor I had once told me there are three reasons most people write:

  • Because they have to (job, school)
  • To try to convince someone of something
  • For themselves

I think we all do each of these at one point or another. Though I do quite a bit of writing as part of my job, the vast majority of my 'writing' (loosely defined) falls into that last category, sometimes as a way to figure out what I'm going to write to meet my job requirements, sometimes just trying to figure out what I think about something (which is kind of what my blogs are). I can't tell you how many pages of doodles in notebooks I've accumulated over the years, the abandoned drafts and mind maps cluttering my hard-drive (and laying around on floppies, zip disks, and CDs), and abandoned blogs and posts that are adding to 'net pollution (sorry). They may never see the light of day again, and I probably wouldn't understand them out of context if they did, but they definitely served their purpose.

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