How to make Knowledge Management sexy again

How to make Knowledge Management sexy again

From: Richard Vantielcke - Conceptual and narrative ...

From: Richard Vantielcke – Conceptual and narrative

Two interesting articles surfaced recently that reinforce what has been discussed on this blog over the last 18 months and point to how to make KM sexy again:

BBC – Did Minsky find the secret behind the financial crashes?

Time – Google’s flu project shows the failings of big data

These articles provide insight into sensemaking and the emergence of narrative and social science methods. It is imperative for those interested in KM or knowledge services to become aware of what is being discussed in this space and what it means for practice. If you want to make KM sexy again it means a shift in thinking!

“Perhaps we all have a rather Victorian fetish for reductionist explanations about the world….We have somehow made behavioural phenomena feel connected to larger explanatory systems, the physical sciences, a world of certainty, graphs and unambiguous data. It feels like progress. In fact, as is often the case with spurious certainty, it’s the very opposite” (Goldacre, 2008)

Read today’s management journals and you will find them promoting problems associated with complexity and the struggle to close the complexity gap. What they are speaking of is a need to understand the consequences of the connections and interdependencies that produce the ambiguity and flux that impact them – sensemaking.

Organisations need to become more resilient to flux, especially the single major events or an amalgam of smaller events that significantly disrupt their ability to do business or provide community services. To achieve this leaders and managers need to make sense of the world they operate in and influence, and this is the one area that traditional, reductionist methods are struggling to respond to. For example, as Google found out, big data just can’t tell us why people make the decisions they do and leaders/managers are left with an inconvenient gap that and ends up being filled with assumptions. Here’s where KM or knowledge services can become sexy again; to be seen as credible and relevant they have to replace these base level leadership/management assumptions with more reasoned arguments.

Quite simply, the challenge for the organisation is to develop a community so enabled that it achieves organisational or community consciousness. For the knowledge service community this “community consciousness” is achieved when the community served develops broad awareness for the need to acquire/embed, share, use and develop (blend) knowledge resources. And there is the age old KM problem; how to raise levels of awareness of need to cross a threshold (tipping point) where awareness activates a community (something I have addressed repeatedly in this blog)?

The second problem is a general lack of understanding of the nature of the space KM/knowledge services is operating in and the appropriate methods required to operate in the space.

Complexity is said to happen wherever cooperation or competition occurs. Look at the agents who form communities, who amplify and activate messages, and you have the clue you need to understand the methods deployed to both understand and close the complexity gap – we’re talking about people, not machines. So, how do we make sense of people?

Sensemaking assumptions

Traditional (positivist) approaches to sensemaking (typical of IT)

Adventurist (interpretivist) approach to sensemaking(typical of L&D)

Common ground

Ontology Person and reality are separate Person and reality are inseparable (life-world) Both are enhancing understanding of reality.  Both have bias and methods employed have strengths and weaknesses. Emergent approach recognises personal bias and assumptions –Traditionalists do not see as much benefit in this.
Epistemology Objective reality exists beyond the human mind Knowledge of the world is intentionally constituted through a person’s lived experience Objective reality cannot be fully determined.  Approaches to sensemaking are methods to construct an understanding of reality and as such is challenged and discarded – little knowledge is sacrosanct
Research object – focus of practice Research object has inherent qualities that exist independently of the researcher Research object is interpreted in light of meaning structure of person’s lived experience Traditional approach to reality is created through artefacts created by the researcher.   Adventurists become the measurement instrument.  Therefore in both cases the approach to sensemaking and the objects of research (area of practice) are coupled.
Method Statistics, content analysis Hermeneutics, phenomenology etc. ‘Protocol’ analysis as an example of blurred methods – where a traditional approach is frequently analysed from a traditional and adventurist perspective.
Theory of truth Correspondence theory of truth:  One-to-one mapping between research statements and reality Trust as intentional fulfilment:  interpretations of research object match lived experience of object Intentional fulfilment is conjoined to traditional goals of theory building and testing
Validity Certainty:  data truly measures reality Defensible claims Fundamentally there is no way to measure reality. Traditionalists and adventurists focus on developing constructs that are accepted by the communities they serve and are deemed useful.  Validity issues arise through the strengths and weaknesses of the approach to sensemaking
Reliability Replicability: results can be reproduced Interpretive awareness: practitioners recognise and address implications of subjectivity Both paradigms are concerned with replicability – as long as rigour is applied to adventurist methods


Welcome to the world of sensemaking through narrative – adventurist (interpretivists) over traditionalist (positivists). Blended approaches have their place in this space (as per the table), but traditional quantitative methods are often grossly misplaced when looking at sensemaking in a complex social environment (people-based interactions).

While maths is more precise, words might allow you to express and engage with complex ideas that are tricky to model – things like uncertainty, irrationality, and exuberance. (BBC article, cited earlier)

Ask yourself, what is the focus of knowledge work and what does this mean in terms of sensemaking? Within any organisation or community there is a circulating current of unconscious knowledge-based activity – localised awareness of events tied to a time and space, observed through a narrow lens without thought for the impact upon the wider world (e.g. the wider organisation and/or its clients/customers); think of them as signals being broadcast, waiting for someone to receive them. The challenge for knowledge services is to deploy methods aligned with the needs of the environment (people and communities) to anticipate, curate, attenuate, evaluate, distribute and accelerate these signals to distributed decision-making systems so that they can be amplified throughout, and activated by, the community – thereby bring about community or organisational consciousness.

However, this is just the beginning. Knowledge services have to be interested in the ability to act. This leads to the understanding and development of skills, behaviours, traits, qualities that enable the individual and group/team to identify and solve problems/make decisions; here we start to explore facets of bias, learning agility and adaptive capability.

The bottom line, knowledge services/Knowledge Management will never achieve long-term success until the function becomes integrated; a state where the function is capable of addressing the whole problem and not just a single facet – take a look at my commentary on lessons learned systems to better understand what I mean.

To make KM sexy again you will need a broad KM pallet that can address the whole. This is the future.

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