Knowledge Fishing vs. Knowledge Farming

April 16, 2006 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd

Euan Semple's IT professionals, knowledge management and trout farming notes that a conversation "about managing communities of practice is raising my usual concerns about the fatal combination of the words "knowledge", "communities" and "manage"."

Indeed the combination of "knowledge" and "manage" is highly suspicious. The ever perceptive Dave Weinberger quoted a Gartner survey of CIO's in 1999: "... the subjects were reluctant to recommend anything called "knowledge management" because it basically doesn't mean anything, although they see value in the general subject area. ("If you had any knowledge, do you think it'd be good to manage it, or what?" "Um, yeah, sure. You said there'd be hors d'oeuvres.") " -- JOHO June 30, 1998

Kevin Werbach introduced the term Post Modern Knowledge Mangement, but Grass Roots Knowlege Management is simpler and gets to the point. I think its best to start with the assumption that knowledge lives in people's heads - it's the clear perception of fact, truth, or duty by a person - and discover how organizations can best make use of what people learn and perceive in the course of their organizational life.

I like Euan's fly fishing vs. trout farming analogy for capturing the need for patience and subtle skill, and for the implicit recognition of the difficulty in quantifying business value of the activity. The ROI of trout farming is a simple business exercise - asking for the ROI of fly fishing seems like a pretty silly question.

The challenge is to motivate organizations to cultivate, appreciate and reward the effective use of what its' people know, without interfering with people's ability to do their work.

I believe the best approach is to design systems that people want to use for daily working communication and collaboration because it makes their life easier. Then mine, comment, and build on that "work in flow" for higher value lessons learned and as a long term record of experience - over and above the direct operating benefit.

This isn't a new idea: Douglas Engelbart based his augmentation theory on the use of a time ordered journal (Traction Roots - Doug Engelbart); Jim McGee writes on bottom up knowledge managment frequently; Thomas Stuart's Wealth of Knowlege (published December 2001) includes a crisp example and a great literary quote:

At a company where I worked many years ago, circulating correspondence was an everyday practice. It was also one of the simplest and best knowledge management techniques I've ever seen.

Whenever you wrote a letter -- and we wrote a lot of letters -- you made two copies: one to file, one to circulate. Every week (or every so often) you took the circulating set, culled any that included confidential dope or made you look more stupid than usual, stuck on a buck slip, and put them into your outbox. By the time the folder returned, it was generally time to refill it and send it out again. Everybody participated, including the chairman and the president.

"A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard," said Herman Melville's Ishmael; when it came to learning my job, circulating correspondence was mine. Reading my superiors' letters opened a window into how they conducted business with the world outside; I aped things more experienced colleagues did, and saw how they handled tricky situations; I copied useful addresses into my Rolodex (another antique). I learned who knew what, and that made me better at asking for advice.

Circulating correspondence was obligatory, easy, and genuinely useful.

As such, it stands in stark contrast to much of what today passes for knowledge management -- an activity that has assumed immense importance in the corporate world. ...

As time marches on, and Moore's Law with it, this technology gets swifter, stronger, and subtler. Why, then, is there a nagging sense that all of it misses the point? Or that much of the time it yields no more insight than a file of circulated letters? -- Quoted from Thomas A Stuart, The Wealth of Knowledge - Intellectual Capital and the Twenty-First Century Organization, December 2001.

Maybe Knowledge Fishing will do!

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