Managing Knowledge is like Herding Cats

Greetings from lovely, exotic East Fishkill, New York. I am at IBM’s Knowledge Management Conference; unfortunately, many of the exciting things I’ve learned today are IBM proprietary information and so I can’t share them with you.

But some of the talks were not only interesting but talked about things outside the firewall. Our first talk was by Larry Prusak, author of Working Knowledge, who talked about where knowlege lives in a firm (it’s not just in people’s heads). The concept of knowledge has been around for a long time — as usual, the Greeks had a word for it. In fact, they had three; my note-taking wasn’t good enough to capture the original Greek terms, but one word became “epistematics” (universal knowledge); another word
was “technie”, which represents the difference between reading chemistry books and being a chemist, and the third
is “metis”, which is social
knowledge — “how to win friends and influence people”.

Larry closed with “five little heuristics” about knowledge:

  • Connectivity is a much better bet than capture. Show people who knows what.
  • The right unit of analysis is a small network of people (50-300), not an individual, a workgroup, or an enterprise.
  • If you don’t have a “thick picture” of work, you can’t really affect it.
  • People learn through stories and from one another, not from documents.
  • Technology doesn’t change behavior by itself.

The second speaker was Tom Boyle of British Telecom (I guess it’s just “BT” these days), talking about the BT Global Challenge and how the crews of the boats are
using computer conferencing to prepare for the race, and some of the lessons that we might be able to take away from their interactions — one interesting one was that crews with a high ratio of “engagement” postings to
“informational” postings tend to have a culture of involvement, and even informational postings tend to get better answers on such crews.

We also had a spectacular thunderstorm; I was inside and missed most of it, and even missed out on the leaks into the building.

Time for dinner!