Three generations of knowledge management

10 April 2007

Thinking about story telling reminded me of Dave Snowden.  Dave is a pioneer in knowledge management, who played an inadvertent bit part in an earlier post on social network analysis – activity, betweenness and closeness, but more pertinently was one of IBM’s most unlikely consultants, using approaches he had largely developed himself based more on anthropology than on the Taylorist approaches which are the foundation of much conventional consultancy.  He was also the first – but by no means the last – consultant I came across who was addicted to very distinctive (and very expensive) hexagonal post-it notes.

Dave has now turned up at a new (to me) outfit called Cognitive Edge with a blog on the home page, from which he has just given an introduction to knowledge management to an audience in Moscow – and so used a stripped-down pack of eight slides to summarise his approach, including this one slide summary of the basics:

Snowden: some basics in KM

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If this is right (and for the brief period I was his client, I wasn’t always fully persuaded), the question of where we are in terms of Dave’s generations is worth reflecting on.  I started fairly firmly in his Generation Two – and indeed lectured the then Departmental Board on the subject, probably the first and only time that they have been exhorted to support the introduction of smoking rooms as a critical element of knowledge management. The two slides below come from that presentation – click on them to get animated versions in a popup window.

What is knowledge?

The cycle of tacit to explicit knowledge and back again seemed a helpful way of understanding things at the time – and I had read the then canonical The Knowledge-creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation by Nonaka and Takeuchi with the fervour of the recently converted.

Dave Snowden notwithstanding, I still think there is something in it – though I do agree with him that the third generation brings in new possibilities, though any shift which relies on pervasive technology is likely to be less pervasive than you might otherwise think reasonable.

For us, and organisations like us, one key question is whether we have to start at the beginning or can jump straight to the end.  Snowden argues, in respect of the Moscow audience for his presentation last week, that jumping is both possible and desirable:

The fact that they are just getting started means that they can avoid the mistakes of the last ten years and take advantage of the newer technologies such as social computing and narrative. The problem is that they are being sold consultancy solutions based on five to ten year old technology using the sort of recipes that contributed to the failures of knowledge management that I documented here.

Tools for knowledge

That, of course, supposes that the last ten years have been a mistake.  Snowden doesn’t beat about the bush in saying that

The worst thing that ever happened to KM was the Nonaka model of tacit-explicit knowledge conversion.

I am not sure that he is right about that – and in any case it is slightly odd to argue that one in front of an audience already defined as knowing nothing of Nonaka or his model.

I do, though, like his three rules – enough to give them a post of their own.